Post-Press: Kris Smith

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

So how do you celebrate being one of the last dailies of your size to move from an aged letterpress to an automated, computer-driven color offset press? At the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, Production Director Kris Smith and the pressroom crew marked the last night of letterpress by letting the 39-year-old Hoe press rip.

“They got her up to 60,000 copies an hour just to see how fast she could go,” Smith recalls of that April 2006 night. “The whole place was vibrating, and felt like it was going to blow. But at that point we figured, what difference would it make?”

Certainly Smith deserved a blowout after the seven years of long days and nights of planning, purchasing, erecting, and training production and editorial employees in a $28 million project. The new addition to the Register Star’s downtown offices houses a five-tower KBA Colora press, computer-to-plate technology, and commercial printing capabilities such as stitching and gluing.

Smith experienced all the typical ? and not so typical ? challenges that arise in building and shaking down a new production facility. There was, for instance, the encounter with a massive sewer pipe 30 feet below the surface. “The mother of all sewer pipes, as we affectionately called it,” laughs Register Star President and Publisher Fritz Jacobi. The pipe, laid during the Depression, had to be rerouted before building could even begin.

On top of that, the newspaper was selected to be the first Gannett Co. daily to switch to lightweight newsprint. “Initially, we thought we’d start on 30-pound newsprint, but we figured we might as well go to 27.7 pounds since our guys were basically going to be learning everything at the same time anyway,” Smith says. With so much equipment, processing, and material being introduced at the same time as lighter newsprint, it was tough to isolate the causes of the inevitably more frequent web breaks and increased show-through. “It was hard to determine if it was press- related problems or paper-related problems,” she recalls. “At the end of the day, we determined it was a little bit of both.”

During construction, and as the project came online, Smith oversaw an intensive training effort to teach production people everything from the fundamentals of offset lithography’s ink and water balance to the computerized workings of the Colora.

Editorial folks were taught how to take advantage of vastly improved color and quality capabilities in moving from the 80-line-per-inch image printing of letterpress to 120 lines on the new offset equipment.

“The dream of any publisher is to have something come in on time and under budget, and Kris with all her attention to detail was able to do both,” says publisher Jacobi.

The commercial capability that Smith created is way ahead of plan: Under that original plan, it was expected to generate $350,000 of business by 2011. “We did that in the first three months,” she says. Jacobi says the paper expects to reach beyond the $3 million revenue mark by the end of the year.

Within eight weeks of being on edition with the new press, the Register Star picked up the contract to print The Onion’s national, Chicago, and Wisconsin editions. The alternative Cleveland Free Times and others soon followed. Now, under GateHouse Media Inc. ownership since April, the Register Star also prints its new sister newspaper, The Journal Standard in nearby Freeport.

Smith says she warmed to newspaper operations while earning her degree in journalism at Western Illinois University in the late 1970s: “By the third year of school, I realized I liked the production end of things more than I liked the writing end of things.” In 1983, she took her first newspaper job, as a part-time platemaker at the Register Star. “A year later, I went full time, and ? well, over the years I moved up the ladder.”

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