Printing presses break, a lot. In the first episode of "State of Repair," Motherboard visits the people who fix them.
There's a saying in the newspaper printing business: "Ink is black gold."
"If you're covered that much in ink, that means you're making money," Greg Zerafa, the machinist foreman at the main New York Times printing plant in Queens, told me. Jerry Greaney, who has worked for the Times as a machinist for 31 years, interrupted him.
"The other part to that is a day without ink is like a day without sunshine," he said.
For the last year, I've been obsessed with learning more about the people who actually bother to fix things when they're broken. As the world's largest technology manufacturers increasingly move toward creating products that are designed to be difficult or impossible to repair, Motherboard has started looking toward the margins of tech to find the people keeping older machines alive and running.
In the first episode of State of Repair, we visited the Times to meet Zerafa, Greaney, and Chris Bedetto, who are part of a team of machinists that keeps the New York Times's eight three-story printing presses humming. On weekdays, the facility prints roughly 300,000 copies nightly; on weekends, it prints around a million.
Moments after telling us he "likes clean hands," Greaney is replacing a 70-pound ink tank. He's up to his elbows in black gold.
The countless gears, rollers, motors, rolls of paper, and ink tanks on each press—they really are intricate, temperamental machines—causes them to break down often. The newspaper must be printed within a few-hour window every night, which is why Zerafa's team has to be prepared to make on-the-fly repairs at moment's notice.
"You try to get it fixed even if we gotta put a band-aid on it, then it gets through the night," Zerafa said. "Til that press is back up and running, you do have that adrenaline flow, 100 percent."
Bedetto chimed in: "My saying is that we don't fix machines at night, we print newspapers."
On any given day, Greaney and Bedetto might have to replace rollers that weigh several hundred pounds, change industrial-sized ink tanks, or crawl inside a machine to replace an ink-distributing motor. This job, in particular, is not for anyone with even a mild case of claustrophobia.
"It's just a tight area and you have to pretty much balance and be able to work your way into that spot," Zerafa said. "And then you basically hold up a 50 or 60 pound motor with one hand, while turning a wrench with the other. All while balancing on a ladder or a beam."
If you visit the plant, you'd never know that press maintenance workers are something of a dying breed. The New York Times printing operation runs with an impressive blend of automation and old-fashioned elbow grease. Robots grab massive reels of newsprint from a temple of paper in the facility's basement and feed them into the presses, while maintenance workers and press operators busily hustle around the plant on adult-sized tricycles with baskets for tools and parts.
The operators—a different team from the machinists—inspect small dots on the bottoms of certain pages of the paper to make sure the colors are accurate and the printing and folding of the newspaper is aligned properly. Huge trash bins are filled with papers that aren't quite up to par.
"When the time comes, I'll hold the door open for the last person to walk out."
"If you're at an airport and you hand someone a copy of the New York Times, they're reading the headlines, maybe put it in their pocket," Zerafa said. "I'm picking it up and I'm seeing what press it came off of. I'm looking at defects, looking at quality, I mean, you look at another newspaper in New York and it's…"
"We got the best looking paper out there," Bedetto said. "The [New York] Post and the other ones are comic books for me. Nothing comes close."
"Nothing impressive anymore," Zerafa added.
The press room is loud almost all the time. When tomorrow's newspaper isn't being printed, folded, or assembled on presses the length of football fields or carried to the mailroom via mechanical, reptilian-looking conveyor belts overhead, the presses are printing advertisements or less time-sensitive sections—such as Style—for newspapers that are still a few days away from readers' kitchen tables.
It's easy to see ink spills and gears turning and crews rushing around and forget, for a moment, that we're not still in the golden era of print. The machinists know circulation is down, they know they've lost coworkers due to buyouts and downsizing-by-attrition. They no longer need to run all eight presses 24 hours a day in order to print enough papers for the next day. Many of the companies that make their repair parts have gone out of business; they now need to make many parts themselves or find rarer ones on eBay or Amazon. If all of those clues aren't enough, they have the opportunity to read about the decline of print in the very product they're making.
Zerafa, Greaney, and Bedetto have different prognoses for how much longer the New York Times will keep printing its newspaper. Zerafa and Greany figure they've got another 15 years; Bedetto says he "figured it would've been 10 years ago. Now I figure it's never gonna stop."
The three regale our film crew with stories about how the doorman at The Academy, a nightclub near the Times's former plant in Times Square, used to let them into shows during the middle of their shift. They tell tales of New Year's Eve ball drops in the plant, the three times someone actually yelled "STOP THE PRESSES" (the nights Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Frank Sinatra died), working "until further notice" after they watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. The night a transformer fire a few years back nearly caused the paper to not come out (they figured it out, of course).
The three have an easy camaraderie that I imagine can only be forged by fixing emergencies every night over the course of three decades. Watching them reminisce, it's impossible not to hope they get to keep doing it as long as they want to.
"If you're gonna work for newspapers, someone is going to have to be the last one standing," Zerafa said. "I mean, when the time comes we always say 'I'll hold the door open for the last person to walk out.' Everybody here likes what they do."
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