Perched formidably in a warehouse behind the Kenai Safeway is a cadet blue machine that stands two stories tall and measures more than half a football field long.
When it roars to life five times per week, the walls tremble around Production Director Eric Trevino as he darts back and forth amid the clamor, making adjustments under the glare of fluorescent lights in the wee hours of the morning.
If all goes well, out from the metal behemoth — a 1966 Goss Suburban printing press — rolls a steady stream of neatly staggered newspapers. The printing process is an art Trevino has spent years perfecting, but it’s also one that for him will end altogether come Saturday.
As the Peninsula Clarion prepares to shift printing off-site and scale back print issues from five days per week to two days per week, Trevino will take on a new role during what will be his final days at the company. After a decade of tinkering with a printing press that he’s helped keep together, Trevino will now be tasked with preparing the machine for storage.
The Peninsula Clarion’s parent company, Sound Publishing, announced earlier this month that it would be ending on-site printing of both the Clarion and The Juneau Empire, which the company also owns. Beginning in May, the Peninsula Clarion will print twice per week, rather than five days per week, and be delivered on Wednesday and Saturday.
Peninsula Clarion Publisher David Rigas said Friday that the cessation of on-site printing in Kenai reflects changes in the way people consume news. As more people turn to their smartphones in the morning rather than a newspaper, Rigas said the cost of producing a paper is more than people are willing to pay for it.
“The way people consume content has changed,” Rigas said. “We’re trying to change our resources to adjust.”
Over the next few months, prioritization of digital content at both the Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau Empire will be “an evolving process.” The Clarion’s printing press, Rigas said, will stay in Kenai, but will be cleaned and prepared for storage after its final run on Friday night.
“We really have to change our mentality as far as we’re not just a newspaper anymore … we are a content-producing business,” Rigas said.
Decades of service
Geoff Long remembers when the Peninsula Clarion’s printing press was installed. The year was 1992 and Long had been working at the newspaper for almost five years. He started in the mailroom and worked his way up, to pressman, then to journeyman then to production manager.
“It made a whole bunch of noise and grease and mess and dirt,” Long said Thursday of the press. “I had to learn how to run this thing.”
At that time, Long said the press wasn’t just churning out copies of the Clarion. Multiple shifts of press workers kept production going for 12 hours at a time and the press was a competitive bidder for commercial printing projects.
“We were running just constantly,” Long said. “I mean, we always had another job to do.”
The jobs ranged from collaborating with customers to make sure advertisements were the right shade of canary yellow, to printing comic books drawn up by an artist in Homer, to the Alaska Journal of Commerce — one of the nine newspapers Morris Communications owned in Alaska by 2005.
It was the Morris family, headed by William S. Morris III, who purchased the Peninsula Clarion in 1991 and decided to scale up operations. Shortly after taking over, Morris, under the banner of Morris Communications, spent $1 million on a new printing press and added 7,000 square feet of building space to accommodate it. That’s according to Evangeline Atwood and Lew William Jr.’s “Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers.”
“Morris was definitely dedicated to Alaska,” Long said.
The Goss Suburban press, Long said, took weeks to install. It sits on a special slab with gaps around it that let the ground flex as the machine shifts. Prior to bringing the new press in, Long said the Morrises conducted a core sample to ensure the machine would be placed on bedrock.
It’s been years since Long worked on the press full time. He’s subbed in for Trevino on some occasions, but navigates the pressroom like he never left. He can point out, for example, a dent in one of the press rollers where a wrench got sucked into the machine, and proudly showed off a spot of blue ink pooled just below the skin on his hand where he once split a knuckle.
“I just wiped it off and kept going,” Long said of the blue ink. “ … It’s going to kill me one day, probably.”
For Long, a printing press produces permanence in a way websites do not. Ideas, he said, are power and there’s no going back once words are laid down in the newsprint.
“I’ve always kind of looked at a printing press as being the most important non-fire invention,” Long said. “When something’s in print, it’s out there forever.”
Still, he said he was under no illusions that the press would continue running ad infinitum, even setting aside that the press was already 25 years old when it arrived in Kenai and that it was never built to print in color.
“Digital is the future and we all know it,” Long said. “We knew it back in ‘88.”
A ‘mass-produced memento’
For M. Scott Moon, what will be lost with the press is an art form that is as much about the relationship between the editorial and press teams as it is about framing and aperture.
Moon is the former chief photographer for the Peninsula Clarion — a position that no longer exists — and recalls working closely with Long and the other staff in the pressroom to ensure his photos came out as clear as possible.
“I spent a lot of time down here,” Moon said Thursday. “It always gave me goose bumps to be down here when this thing starts running. I’d come down here to watch it run at the end of my shift. I like seeing the work come off.”
Moon started taking pictures for the Clarion in 1988, when he was still in college. At the time, he was helping run the University of Alaska Anchorage’s student newspaper, The Northern Light, and would photograph Kenai Peninsula sports teams when big games were held in Anchorage. He recalls ferrying plastic bags full of film to the Ravn Air — then Era Aviation — counter to be put on a plane to Kenai.
“Three, four days later, the paper would show up (on the) late flight up to Anchorage and I would drive out to the airport — it’s a little vain — but I’d drive out to the airport to get a copy to see what I shot,” Moon said of the Peninsula Clarion.
Moon’s working relationship with the Clarion turned into a summer internship of sorts and, eventually, into a job. Once fall classes began at UAA, Moon split his time between Kenai and Anchorage — going to school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and working for the newspaper the other four days each week.
Moon, who was officially employed by the Peninsula Clarion from 1996 to 2012, said his favorite pictures were often the ones that required the most collaboration with the staff downstairs — especially Long.
“There were some types of photos that I wouldn’t have even tried in another newspaper,” Moon said. “There are a couple that I don’t think could have been printed anywhere else in the state.”
Long has similarly fond memories.
“Due to my genius photographer guy, we won awards on this press,” Long said, referring to accolades the Clarion received from the National Press Photographers Association. “It puts out really good quality.”
A newspaper has weight, Moon said, that a story online or a Facebook post never will.
“With that printed newspaper, if you screw up somebody’s name, that clipping is going to be in somebody’s family album for 80 years, 40 years,” he said. “The product that comes off this press is hanging on people’s refrigerators, it’s in frames.”
To lose the press, Moon said, is to lose newspapers that become “mass-produced memento(s).”
For Peninsula Clarion Sports Editor Jeff Helminiak, the shuttering of the Clarion’s printing press is also “the end of an era.” Helminiak started working at the newspaper in 1997, in a role that the company added as it expanded operations to compete with a new Kenai Peninsula section in the Anchorage Daily News.
Helminiak grew up, he said, in an era where the newspaper and the printing press were synonymous. He remembers sneaking into the Clarion editor’s office to get online before the internet was as widely available as it is today. While the web’s advent has admittedly streamlined his reporting process, it has also displaced the press.
“The press in the pre-internet era was like a massive conduit for the community to see itself reflected and there are a lot of talented people who work to make that special,” Helminiak said.
The rolls run quiet
When Trevino learned that the press would soon see its final days, he said he was disappointed but not surprised.
“You know, being in this business, that that’s a possibility,” he said.
The shuttering of the Clarion’s printing press comes as the total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers hits industry lows. Per the Pew Research Center, the total estimated circulation of weekday daily newspapers in the United States was about 25 million, down from about 62 million in 1989. A similar downward trend applies to those newspapers’ Sunday editions.
That trend comes as the number of people visiting online news sites goes up, the Pew Research Center found. The average number of monthly unique visitors to the websites of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation has jumped from about 8.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 to about 13.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. The share of newspaper advertising revenue that comes from digital ads is also increasing.
Over the last year and a half, Trevino has been the only person trained to run the press — not for lack of trying to grow his team. It’s a tough job, he said, that isn’t without its risks, but also a craft and a trade in which skill can be developed. During that time, it’s been Trevino’s one-man team picking up the gauntlet to ensure papers get to subscribers and newsstands.
Monday, as Trevino printed the Sunday Comics, he demonstrated the work it takes to produce a quality publication. He used an imagesetter to burn the design onto plates — sheets of aluminum about the thickness of a soda can. Those plates fit into the units of the press, their design collected in ink and offset onto the long “web” of paper threaded through the machine. In the end, the paper is cut and folded neatly, rolling hot off the press and ready for delivery.
The first copies rolling out of the press were easily recognizable, with vibrant colors, but Trevino was far from satisfied.
He spent the next 10 to 15 minutes running up and down the length of the press, tweaking controls until the quality met his standards. Pulling copies from the conveyor belt, Trevino explained that his adjustments were in an effort to fine-tune the color “registration” after the color on the first copies didn’t quite fit in the borders.
Like Moon said, every instance of color in the newspaper requires perfectly aligning four separate layers — and Trevino makes that happen on a machine that’s older than he is.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “I feel like everything that I put my hand on, no matter what it is, professionally, recreationally, raising my family, anything that’s associated with my name or that can come back to that I had a hand in it, I want people to know that I did my best. It may not always be the best, but the effort that I gave was the best.”
When Trevino started in the pressroom in 2010 he didn’t plan to stay for long. Thirteen years later, he’ll be the last person to make the Kenai press run — a job he says was “a perfect match.” Working on the press, Trevino said, was something he feels proud of, and something that connected him to the community.
“People asked me what I did, I told them what I did,” he said. “I worked for the newspaper.”
One week after Sound Publishing announced it would be shutting down its printing press in Kenai, the walls in Trevino’s office were bare. Where Los Angeles Dodgers posters and family photos once hung, now only holes pock the white drywall.
In the coming weeks, Trevino will “prepare the press for storage.” He said that process will entail clearing out all the lines of fluids and air, readying the machine for dormancy, or whatever else comes next.
Though Trevino was the only one left to see the press through its final printing, he’s only the latest in a line of people who contributed to its success. He pointed to Long and former Clarion Publisher Stan Pitlo as mentors and patrons of the machine and the medium.
The loss of the press, Long said, will break a long line handing down the tricks of the printing press trade. While it’s sad, he said, to know that tradition is being broken, it’s also not a complete surprise.
“There’s something being left behind,” Long said. “We’re talking generations of wisdom that’s been handed down — practical wisdom. It was a great career. I don’t regret it. We worked a lot of hours — a lot of blood, sweat and tears … and I’m sorry to see you go. But I’ve also seen it coming for a long time.”
For Trevino’s part, he says that, if nothing else, he hopes people know how much care and consideration went into cultivating a community newspaper.
“The skill, the amount of effort, the amount of work that went into putting that product out for as long as we did,” Trevino said. “ … Guys put decades of their lives into making this a successful paper. We did our best and I would hope it’s going to be missed.”
This story was part of the final run of the Peninsula Clarion’s Goss Suburban press, which churned out its last newspaper early in the morning hours on Saturday.