Columbia Looks to Charlotte for Publishing Power

By: Jim Rosenberg

After The State’s pressroom flooded during heavy rains in South Carolina Saturday, subscribers received Sunday papers printed for the first time with water-based ink.

The three feet of water that poured into the Columbia daily’s basement knocked out electricity that powered news and advertising computer systems and the paper’s press. Fortunately for the newspaper, neither its big Goss Headliner Offset presses nor any other production equipment was damaged. The State’s pressroom is on an upper floor.

Equipment in a smaller commercial print shop in the basement was damaged, according to Operations Director Tony Adeshina. Besides the building’s electrical controls, basement flooding hit two storage rooms, a cafeteria, and an exercise room. Cost of the damage had not been estimated by Monday afternoon.

Power was restored by about 5:30 Sunday afternoon, and most of the clean-up was completed by early Monday afternoon, Adeshina told E&P. “We should be publishing tonight,” he said.

Emergency plans called for operations to transfer to The Charlotte Observer, a Knight Ridder sister paper in North Carolina. The transition got a head start when State Human Resources Vice President Diane Frea learned of the flood while driving south near the Observer. She made a detour and was given a desk and phone to coordinate the transfer with colleagues from Columbia, according to a story in today’s State.

Frea was an Observer copy editor until 1992, when she moved south and worked as the State’s copy desk chief, then moved to the information technology and systems department. “We were fortunate she was in Charlotte. We were well served having her up there,” State Executive Editor Mark E. Lett told his paper.

While news and ad staffers put in overtime to put out pages in Charlotte, production, distribution, and facilities maintenance staff back in Columbia worked long hours to bail out their building, take the hand-off of copies from five Observer trucks, and prepare to resume local production when power was restored.

“It took a long time,” but the water was pumped out by late Saturday, said Adeshina. Meanwhile, the paper’s preferred electrical contractor — a firm that had worked at the paper and was familiar with its electrical system — drove the 90 miles from Greenville with replacement switching gear that it fortunately had in storage.

Once the press and lighting had power, the computer systems were powered up, and staffers could begin returning from Charlotte.

Adeshina said the State’s emergency plan is updated once or twice a year, primarily for coping with hurricanes. Emergency team members were able to work from copies of the plan they keep in their cars and at home.

The Observer is the specified back-up plant for the State. The State is the Observer’s back-up site should Charlotte lose power. Otherwise, owing to proximity and compatible presstime schedules, The Wall Street Journal’s Charlotte plant will print the Observer.

(The Observer, according to managers there, also maintains a hot back-up systems site for news and advertising that relies on QuarkXPress for page make-up, though the paper would like to be able to use its CCI Europe pagination system there, too. Located in a city industrial park a few miles away, the site is the paper’s distribution center and former company-owned trucking business, which also houses a paint shop and repair shop for things like news racks. The former trucking center has fuel storage to support the diesel generators that can power the back-up systems in an emergency.)

Charlotte’s CCI system was made available for assembling all but the three State pages that arrived as film negatives. With their publishing system down, State reporters and editors retrieved story drafts from e-mails. Ad stacks and any completed pages arrived as PDF files.

Using Charlotte’s system meant largely sidestepping prepress-press compatibility issues. “Most of it we were able to avoid,” said Printing and Facilities Director Chuck Griffiths, adding that Observer staff could handle image toning suited to his paper’s printing process. Only the pages that arrived as negatives were of some concern. For the Monday edition, “the entire paper came out of our pagination system,” said Griffiths.

While the State runs offset presses, the Observer prints on MAN Roland Flexoman equipment. That flexo process relies on a different inker using a water-based ink rather than the offset press’ oil-based litho ink. The different printing processes require different setting and imaging practices in prepress.

Because the Observer has a slightly wider page image, and its cut-off is a long 23-9/16 inches — more than an inch longer than the State’s — State page images had to be floated within the dimensions of the physical pages. Newsroom Systems Director Neil Mara said the difference in resulting width was barely noticeable — about three picas.

Griffiths credited Mara with successfully preparing State page images for printing at the Observer’s equipment. State staffers supplied text files of local stories and retrieved a Macintosh on which local photos had been stored. Wire copy was pulled in Charlotte. Up to 20 Observer newsroom staffers were paired with those from the State in side-by-side editing, headline writing, and page lay out on the system in Charlotte.

“It helped quiite a bit that we’d done an exercise about a year ago,” Mara said referring to The State. The Observer, he said, set up a State section within its CCI system in the event the State’s publishing system ever goes down — but with the expectation that resulting pages will be printed on the State’s presses.

Nevertheless, it took “only a few minutes to change it back to our settings,” said Mara.

The State’s Mac was put on Charlotte’s network, with its old AP Preserver archive and imaging station. With photos already toned for offset printing in Columbia, photo editors worked from the original image files to create versions suitable for flexo printing in Charlotte.

When the last page was sent for output a couple of minutes before 1:000 Sunday morning, recalled Mara, it had taken “about five hours to produce a second, 30-page newspaper from a dead start.”

The State not only had to fit onto the Observer’s pages, but it also had to fit into the back-up site’s schedule. The Sunday Observer is printed in Saturday night collect runs on its four presses. When word came that the State would be sharing press capacity that night, Griffiths checked for paper and press availability, then put the Observer on three presses, with the fourth going to the State.

“I knew I was taking a risk,” he said, but “we did fine”: With 40,000 copies to go, Griffiths switched a second press from the Observer to the State “to add some firepower” toward the end of its run.

The State began running around 2:00 a.m. Sunday and was off press at 4:40, when 155,000 30-page copies were loaded onto five trucks that were driven down to Columbia, some through rainstorms that had resumed. Subscribers received their papers only 90 minutes late, according to the State, which reported that single copies were available about three hours late. The Monday print run came to 135,000 copies, according to Griffiths.

“The first night was a lot rougher than the second,” which, he added, “went very smoothly.”

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