Press Delay Allowed Shuttle Reporting

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By: Jim Rosenberg

Very early in the morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, a high-speed fan in the system that cools half the printing units gave out on The Bakersfield Californian‘s single TKS press line. Staffers hoped that by sacrificing eight pages and all color they could print the remaining 20,000 or so copies of the press run by using the still-operable units.

What none of them knew then was that, in just a little more time, they would regain use of the entire press line — and that, sadly, theirs wasn’t the only machine overheating that morning.

Circulation Director Brian Muldoon said more than half the day’s print run was distributed on time, but that the remainder was not on its way until 10:30 a.m. By then, the 71,495-daily circulation paper looked very different, and the press run had been boosted by 3,000 copies in anticipation of heavy single-copy sales.

The decision to wait not only guaranteed all color and all pages for the advance and late runs of the bigger Sunday issue, but also enabled the newspaper to be among the first in the nation to carry a full initial report of the young year’s biggest story in its Saturday issue.

Just about the time the press crew learned it could regain use of the idled three mono units and color tower, the world learned it almost certainly had lost the seven crew members of the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia.

“It was like a p.m. edition … really a fluke,” said Executive Editor Mike Jenner. “If the press had not broken down, the paper would have been delivered before the shuttle had broken up.”

Sick in bed, Operations General Manager Alan Ferguson heard about the press at 3 a.m. and headed back to work, where he’s normally found between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. “There’s no time to be sick if you’ve got a press down,” he remarked a week later and still recovering. Ferguson started at the Californian 30 years ago as a photographer, becoming photo editor and newsroom technology manager before moving to the ad side to manage prepress. He became the paper’s systems chief and in 2000 was appointed production manager. The path from newsroom to pressroom, he said, has left him with “a perspective that helps me with different parts of the paper now.”

After an hour of effort to fix the press, Ferguson phoned Jenner with the bad news just before 4:30 a.m.

The editor and others went into work, where they set about recomposing the edition for the 64 black-and-white pages that the pressroom could print. Then Ferguson called Jenner again with worse. He’d just left the re-pagination effort at the downtown offices for the pressroom at the paper’s remote Harold Fritts Publishing Center when he heard a radio report that Columbia had broken up shortly before it was to land. “We got a brief bulletin on the front page,” Jenner recalled.

But no sooner was an abbreviated and colorless edition ready to plate than Ferguson and Pressroom Supervisor Gene Gilbert reported that, with a little more time, they could restore 72-page capacity with color. A phone call brought in the air-conditioning contractor who installed the cooler. “Even though we have these fabulous technicians [who] can machine anything,” said Jenner, what they needed could not be found on a parts list. Luckily, one of the contractor’s employees remembered seeing something like it with other parts on the third floor, said Shauna Rockwell, executive assistant to Operations Vice President Graham Annett.

Ferguson later explained that the fan, not looking like a press part, had been moved upstairs to air-conditioning parts storage, where it probably had been sitting since the plant was built 18 years ago. He said the contractor is rebuilding the broken fan to “replace the one at the other end of the press, which he will then also rebuild.

But back on that Saturday, the remaining copies already were late. A little more time, they all thought, would make them as complete as those already distributed. In fact, it was the majority of copies already out the door that lacked the biggest news.

“We started the presses around 9 in the morning,” said Jenner. And while he “was thrilled we were back in business,” many readers were dismayed — first to discover no newspaper in the morning, then to find it showing up with that morning’s disastrous news. The late-arriving copies with Page One shuttle coverage even got the attention of local TV, said Muldoon.

And then, of course, there was the lone complainer — a reader who called the newspaper’s staff “vultures” in the belief they had somehow known to delay distribution to exploit a disaster that hadn’t yet happened.

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