Chap 7: “Press-ures”

This is the third and last of three narratives covering my time – 1978 to 1998 – at the Pontiac Press, renamed Oakland Press, during that period.

Meek’s reply to Reed over lunch proved to be more than just a wisecrack.
It wasn’t long before Bruce McInytre, a news executive from Battle Creek, Michigan was brought in to replace Reed as editor. Reed ended up at the Grand Rapids Press.

The arrival of McIntyre, whose byline I had remembered seeing several years before when he was a reporter for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, seemed to open sort of a pipeline from Battle Creek. Shortly, two more people from the Enquirer there were brought aboard.

One of these was Neil Munro, who took over the Press’ editorial page. He’d   been there for probably two years and I had become executive news editor when Munro said he’d like to be in charge of Page One for a day.

I agreed to step aside and would sort of look over his shoulder

Things went along fairly smoothly until just minutes before deadline Munro discovered he had forgotten to order the photo lab to process the four-column picture he’d planned for the Page One.

“What are you going to do,” I asked. “I guess we’ll think of something,” he ventured.

Minutes passed, and he hadn’t thought of much.

Meanwhile, I went to the back shop to check out our “Late Local” page, usually the last one to go on the press.

There, on the page and ready to go, was a picture exactly the same width and depth as what Munro had planned for Page One.

I had the photo and its caption moved to Page One and we moved things around on Late Local and added some odds and ends.

Neil looked quite relieved.  He didn’t try Page One again.

Perhaps it was the arrival of new people at the top like Munro and McIntyre, but staff and management at the Press seemed to be continual adversaries,  with contract negotiation, grievances, and in 1973 a strike which lasted a couple of days.

In late 1977, however, those in the press room, also unionized, went on strike. To replace the pressmen, CapCities brought in employees from its sister papers in other states. This prompted the news room’s Guild unit to go on strike in an act of solidarity.

Although a member of the Guild, as executive news editor I was working in a management position. In the last hours before our walkout, I was approached by McIntyre about what I was going to do. I told him I didn’t have an answer for him right away.

The Guild’s walkout took effect on New Year’s Eve, 1977. I had too many good friends in the Guild, and joined them on the picket line. That New Year’s Eve my wife and I hosted a party we had planned for neighbors. We couldn’t let a strike get in the way of welcoming in the New Year.

This strike wasn’t going to end soon. The Guild provided each striker with $75 a week, but that wasn’t going to pay the bills. However, in return for us supporting their walkout, the pressmen was able to get us part-time jobs as apprentices in the press rooms at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.

And, that work opened one’s eyes to a “whole ‘nuther side” of the newspaper business.

My first shift was at the Free Press. I reported in darkest downtown Detroit at 10 p.m. Opening a side door at the Free Press building, I stepped into to a Dante’s den of decibels. After finding the foreman, a tall thirty-something African-American man, he handed me a pair of earplugs to dim somewhat the roar of the presses.

The foreman, using his own version of sign language, directed me to where a veritable paper river of one of that night’s editions was flowing off a press and along a conveyor belt. He pointed to a small light bulb on the press, just above the belt.

Somehow, he was able to communicate that when that light went on I was to watch for a strip of tape protruding from the near side of the newsprint flow, quickly scoop up as many papers as I could and throw them aside.

The tape signaled that downstairs where the rolls of newsprint were stored, a giant roll was being pasted onto the whirling roll that was in use but about to run out. This paste=together operation would keep the press rolling without interruption

Those papers I had thrown off the conveyor belt?

During the minutes between the belt’s light coming on– and the next roll pasting  — I was to bundle the papers with twine, using a knot, which I can remember to this day. As I was coached by my press room colleagues, it involved feeding the twine “around, under and through” to make a proper knot.

Snaking along the floor and between the giant presses were steel rails resembling those for a trolley. The Free Press published several editions each night, and for each one there would be pages replacing those in the earlier edition.

Along the rails, from the plate-making department, would come thirty-pound half-cylindrical metal pieces, each representing a page, to be placed on cylinders on the press.

It was the job of the apprentice to grab each heavy half-cylinder “plate” that had the code — marked with red paint — of the press he was assigned to and place it “just so” alongside the press.

The code also carried the page number, and that “just-so” placement enabled the journeyman press men to slap the half-cylinder plate on the right location on the press, and wrench down the half-cylinder tightly. Nobody would want that heavy curved piece of metal flying off as the press was going full tilt.

“Full tilt” in those days was perhaps 50,000 ready-for-your-doorstep papers an hour. A letter-press, as those at the Free Press were, could be revved up to an even greater speed. The offset presses which came later, could more commonly turn out about 35,000 an hour.

Very infrequently at the Free Press, a page would come loose as the press was running, causing all kinds of consternation and quick action.

After working a sufficient number of shifts, I was accepted as one of guys, a good number of whom originally hailed from Appalachia. One night, with the presses stopped for some reason, I was asked if I’d like some “white lightning.”

It was being brewed right there in the press room.

They had to have had a good recipe, because it sure was smooth stuff.

The pay for those press room shifts was a great help in surviving the strike.

This was particularly true of the Saturday night shift at the Detroit News, where, just on apprentice pay, I could clear $100.

The Pontiac strike never ended. But in April 1978, I received an opportunity to try out on the copy desk of the San Diego Tribune. After a week of showing them what I could do, I was hired.

Eventually others off the picket line were hired. The eight of us who joined the Tribune became known as the “Michigan Mafia.”






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