My father’s legacy: Newspapers endure

This essay was first published in the June 19, 2011 edition of the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus. It was written almost a month after a May 26 flood inundated the Times Argus offices in Barre and destroyed the printing press for both newspapers:

People say that America doesn’t make anything any more, but we make a newspaper from scratch every day. My grandfather did that, and my father does that, and now that’s what I do. This is one of the immutable things that I have learned — or absorbed, rather — from my father.

From my earliest years I can remember the sound of the press starting up: It makes this big rumbling whine that you feel throughout the building, and you could walk back into the pressroom and watch this giant clanking, screaming mothership come alive, eating rolls of paper and spitting out a day’s worth of life at the other end. It is a massive machine, nearly two stories tall and almost the length of a basketball court.

 The press operators would be standing at the controls like ships’ captains, or reaching into the guts to make an adjustment, or pulling a finished paper off the conveyor to inspect it for quality. A press operator knows what each sound means — a certain whine portends a break in the “web,” or the line of newsprint; a hissing may tell of too much water coming into the ink pan. A clanking might warn that the whole thing is about to shut down because of malfunction; that often meant cursing and screaming at the giant machine, or tapping tenderly on a point known only to them, or reaching in to adjust something and withdrawing a hand drenched in ink.

 Since the flood, the press has been shut down, and although the mud has been cleaned away and the pressmen have been oiling it and taking care of it as much as they can, we don’t know if it will ever again rumble to life. We took a $4 million loss in the flood, and it will take six months to figure out if we can afford to repair this giant machine that has been at the heart of what we do for generations.

 My dad threw away his desk the week after the flood, the same one he’d worked at for more than 40 years. His office is cleaned out and empty, the same office where I’ve been going to visit him since I was a boy, the same place where we’ve sat to talk about important stuff like the gubernatorial campaign, the future of journalism and the birth of my son. The first time I went in after the flood, the newsroom was emptied of people, mud coated the floor and everything up to 3 feet high, and the building felt frail and abandoned.

 The destruction of these things, these places that are so familiar, is an echo of the transformation that the newspaper industry has been undergoing. The same day that the first invoice from the cleaning companies came in, we got a bill for the lawyers who argued our recent public records cases before the Vermont Supreme Court. Both bills are equally important — one represents our belief that we can and will pick up the pieces and carry on; the other represents our duty to the public trust that was passed from my grandfather to my father and from him to me.

 The irony of all this is that this is supposed to be the future of newspapers — a future without a press, a future where the office is virtual and reporters and editors don’t actually need to be in the same room. It’s a future where news and information are beamed invisibly through copper wire or fiber optic cable or through the air to tiny mobile devices that have more computing power than the entire Apollo spaceship and Houston combined. The Monday after the flood I interviewed some people and recorded it on my iPhone, then uploaded the interview to our YouTube channel, where the video evidence of the flood and the shock of loss were instantly available for anyone to watch — shock and loss that I felt myself that day. There is a certain magic in that, but the magic of print is different.

 In all this hurly-burly of change, of new technology, of cloud computing and Google Nation, our readers have found comfort in the fact that the printed word has arrived on their doorstep each morning since the flood. It’s an old-fashioned network of distribution —so inefficient compared to sending electrons across the Internet — but it has worked for more than 200 years. Technology may overtake and leave behind the printing press, but the magic of creating anew each day, the magic of telling a compelling story, the magic of standing up for the public, free speech, the downtrodden — this will not change, no matter what.

 For that lesson, I am thankful to my father.

 Rob Mitchell is state editor of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.