Stop the (Calvert) Presses! Ombudsman

OMBUDSMAN

August 08, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Mike Noppenberger was an 18-year-old looking for work in 1945when he stopped to read The Baltimore Sun's posted classified ads and news pages outside the plant at Baltimore and Charles Streets. The Sun wanted pressroom flyboys.

"Those are the kids who carry the plates for the presses. I got the job and I've been around the presses here ever since. Forty-eight years. I'm not done yet."

Five years later, in December 1950, Mr. Noppenberger moved as a full pressman to a new Sunpapers plant at Calvert and Centre Streets. He made a little Baltimore press history last Saturday when he and his fellow foreman, Fred Luc, supervised the last press crew to print a Sun on Calvert Street after almost 43 years there.

Benny Taylor, the senior hands-on pressman, got things going Saturday by pushing the button which began the No. 2 Metroliner press. Simultaneously, he pressed the fast button getting No. 2 headed up to 61,000 papers an hour.

In two hours of work amid a roar that can deafen, the ear-protected pressmen finished the bulldog edition of The Sun for Sunday, the early first edition that annoys some readers because it is so early and newsless.

Like the news it prints, newspaper machinery is not here forever. The four Metroliner presses on Calvert Street, installed 12 years ago in a new Calvert Street addition but overtaken by economic events, are now being dismantled for shipping to newspaper towns like Allentown, Pa., and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Four new Colorliner presses take their place at Sun Park in Port Covington. One by one they began printing Suns, starting in January 1992. The fourth press was added this year. They are 12 units each, bigger than the 9-unit Metros and each able to print 75,000 papers an hour.

The main news, editorial, composing and engraving rooms and business offices remain on Calvert Street, though employees guess that someday a new office building may also go up on the South Baltimore property.

Despite new machinery at Sun Park and at Calvert Street, some readers are quick to notice occasional problems such as inking too light or too dark, papers cut incorrectly, bottom lines of type not printed and photo reproduction glitches, not uncommon newspaper gremlins.

Meanwhile, Mr. Noppenberger recalled, "I've closed down nine Hoe and Goss letterpresses, five Urbanites and four Metroliners for The Sunpapers. That may be a record for one company." He wasn't bragging but said this in wonderment.

"So many changes in this business," he mused, after which his buddy, Mr. Luc, called him "the relic." Ink mist is gone, so mostly also departed are the famous square pressmen's caps made from newspaper pages to keep ink out of hair. What other differences in newspapering then and now?

"About 45 or 50 pounds," Mr. Noppenberger said quickly. "That's what the lead press plates used to weigh. I was a flyboy for six months and carried two of those sometimes at once. We were in hot metal then. We're now in cold type. The aluminum plates weigh two ounces and a flyboy can carry a pile of plates -- the whole paper."

American newspapers switched from hot lead to photocomposition, or cold type, in the 1970s. Mr. Noppenberger said, "The biggest newspaper change is that printers no longer set type as Linotype operators. No more proofreaders to back them up." (Reviving them wouldn't be a bad idea, say some readers tired of newsroom typographical errors).

Reporters, editors and copy editors work on computers to fashion and set type. From the Calvert Street composing room, pages are sent by fax machines to Sun Park four miles away.

Gone are such colorful jobs as "airplane men," pressmen who climbed to the top of the huge machines and spent their shifts at high altitude.

Mr. Noppenberger said, "It's been a pleasure working here. You learn something every day. But it's not as personal as it used to be. People upstairs, outsiders came down here more often. People used to walk in off the street to get election returns."

The old movie scenes had editors on a big story yelling down a tube, "Stop the presses." Mr. Noppenberger remembered a Sun version.

"In the old days, we shut the papers down for a hot headline. The editors rang a bell we had down here. Only the editors could do that. A war . . . an assassination . . . a disaster . . . big trouble, the bell rang. We also punched in Page 1 horse race results or baseball scores.

"None of that now. Now you just let it run."

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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