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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Times weren’t so ‘terrible’

The Columbian
Published: September 9, 2023, 6:03am

Our editors have an inside joke that when one of us is gone, their fill-in reports that “everything is terrible.” We said this week was especially terrible, as both Jessica Prokop and Amy Libby were on vacation.

I was back after being gone for three weeks (thanks, boss!), so naturally at the staff meeting I asked, “Hey, who was the first to say everything was terrible because I was gone?”

Dead silence.

After that rousing welcome — which I interpreted to mean, “We are a well-trained group on whom you can rely to get it done” — I dove headfirst into the pool of email that awaited me.

A couple of messages involved tours of The Columbian. This is something that Innovation Editor Will Campbell has been extending to donors to our community funded journalism program. Thanks to our donors, we have been able to fund five reporting positions covering environment, transportation, nonprofits and housing and homelessness issues. The least we can do is offer them a tour!

Will, who is one of the fourth generation of Campbell family owners of The Columbian, ably hosts the tours. But I like to tag along.

The tour starts in what used to be the front lobby. It was closed during the pandemic, and we came to realize we didn’t need it, so we have repurposed it into a comfortable area for employee gatherings. Will talks a little about the news business in general and The Columbian in particular, and then we move along to see a real relic.

It’s a Linotype machine, which a century ago formed molten lead into lines of type for letterpress newspaper presses. Black, hulking and a little sinister, it’s flanked by metal cabinets where individual type was kept, in the upper case or lower case. We last used that letterpress technology here in the 1960s.

Next it’s on to the newsroom. The visual highlight is a huge hand-tinted wall-sized photo mural showing Vancouver, looking north from the river, almost a half century ago. The visitors rarely ask, but if they do, we’ll show them how we use computers to put together stories, newspaper pages and web pages.

The prepress area, where the ads and the news are assembled into finished print pages, is next. Then it’s into the plating room, with its special green-yellow lights that won’t fog the photo-reactive coating on the aluminum press plates. Three massive red machines use lasers to etch type and photos onto each press plate. A chemical bath then freezes the image. For every color page, four plates are prepared — one for each color (cyan, yellow, magenta and black.)

The pressroom is next. A door leads you onto the ground floor of the two-story press. If the visitors are agile, we descend a flight of stairs and go under the press, where a trolley transports one-ton rolls of newsprint. Then it’s on to the newsprint warehouse, where they can also get a glimpse of our gigantic black ink tank. We offer commercial printing services to several Northwest newspapers, so this area is quite impressive and busy.

Back in the pressroom, the tours are often timed so that visitors can see (and hear) the metro press running. It’s a formidable sight at high speed, when it can print more than 40,000 four-section newspapers an hour.

The final stop on the tour is packaging center, which is clearly visible if you drive down Grant Street to the waterfront, because it has a big mural on it. In this area, a long line of machines insert advertisements before the papers are automatically counted, bundled and sent onto the loading dock.

It’s an interesting tour. When I take it, I can’t help but think it’s a living history tour. Consumers continue to shift away from printed newspapers in favor of online news. Online is a great way to get your news, but there just ain’t much to see.