The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

February 10, 2012

Presses stopped: Updated with video

Pride of Rowleys makes last run

ASHTABULA — It was June 23, 1969. The banner story in the Star Beacon that day was about a Yale professor who called America’s welfare system a “disaster, while New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller called it “the most serious economic paradox of our time.”

The welfare paradox remains, but the press that printed that edition and those that followed for nearly 43 years has run for the last time in Ashtabula.

Starting with Saturday’s Star Beacon, the Warren Tribune Chronicle will print Ashtabula County’s only daily newspaper — in Trumbull County. Star Beacon Publisher James Frustere points out that the seven-year term of the printing contract indicates that the Star Beacon itself is not going the way of its printing press.

“The Star Beacon is here to stay ... we would not have signed a (7-year) contract if we were going to go out of business,” Frustere said.

Caught between the high capital investment of a new press and the recurring expenses of keeping the old one running, the Star Beacon’s owners had no other choice but to print off-site. Frustere said replacement parts are difficult to come by and very expensive, as is the technical support required whenever the press breaks down. On several occasions in recent years, the newspaper has been forced to print at another paper in the CNHI chain while the Star Beacon waited on parts.

Claude Rowley and his mother, widow of Ohio newspaper pioneer Fred, purchased the Star Beacon in 1920. Claude purchased his mother’s share in 1926 and continued as publisher until 1945. His sons, Robert. B and Donald C., joined their father in what became a newspaper/radio/television empire that included papers in Mentor, Painesville, Geauga County, Conneaut and Geneva.

The brothers became co-publishers upon the death of their father, and Donald assumed operation in 1952, when Robert Rowley died. Donald, his mother and a fourth generation of Rowleys — Robert, Jon, Richard and David — were involved in the enterprises when the offset presses first rolled at the Star Beacon in June 1969.

The new Goss Urbanite offset press was state-of-the-art, as was the prepress equipment that the Rowley family purchased to bring its newspapers into the computer era. For decades, the Star Beacon and its predecessors had been printed using letterpress — cold or molten metal to form the type that left its impression on the paper.

Offset printing, in which the printing plate’s image is first transferred to an inked “blanket” that makes contact with the paper, was faster and could make use of emerging, computer-based technologies. While computer users today think nothing of being able to change the font and size of their text with a mouse click, in 1969 it was a big deal, and very expensive, to output variable type on photo-sensitive paper only 7/8-inch wide. The Photon typesetters purchased as part of the Goss press investment boasted eight master typefaces, each limited to eight sizes!

Veteran prepress employee Bill Naskali said the Star Beacon experimented with these prepress systems for 11 years before converting the entire publication to this new way of setting type. The laboratory for this work was on Elm Street.

The old press, located in the basement, had been the domain of Roy Bush. Star Beacon Production Manager James Hanson recalls Bush as man who always had ink on him and wanted every other employee to share in that condition.

A new press required new skills and staff. Jerry Brown, who had delivered the Star Beacon and helped his father, George, with janitorial work at the newspaper, always wanted to be a sports writer. But when Don Rowley put out the call for a pressman to learn the new offset method of printing, Brown agreed to set aside his writing aspirations and join the team that included Marvin Ralph, Elmer Schwentker and Allan “Whitey” Lutz.

Their mentor was “Big Al,” a Canadian pressman loaned to the newspaper to train the press crew and get its first offset edition out the door.

“When we learned that Big Al was coming, it was like a holiday,” Brown said. “He was one heck of a guy. We were afraid of him because he’d shout out orders.”

Brown said there was a pressrun where the printing plate came off, broke the web and delayed the paper. When Big Al discovered that it was Brown who had improperly attached the plate, “he chewed me out,” Brown said.

Afterward, however, the men would go to a local tavern and drink as friends.

Brown recalls Big Al telling the crew that, eventually, they would work in white shirts because this system was so clean. Brown said the prophecy never came to pass.

The learning process was slow and expensive. Brown said that when they first started running the press, they produced thousands of “spoils,” copies that were ruined as the pressmen attempted to find the optimum settings for the ink, press speed, tension and lateral movement of the paper as it raced across the rollers and blankets.

Brown said the first week the paper printed offset he worked 108 hours.

“I slept in the basement,” Brown said.

The constant exposure to ink made his hands sore and swollen. And a solvent used to clean the press after each run would get on his pants and leak through to his skin as he leaned over the blankets.

“It was a brutal job,” he said. “It would blister your skin.”

He said Schwentker was a taskmaster who insisted pressmen work every minute they were on the clock. If they were not running the press, the men were expected to be maintaining and cleaning it. Every Monday morning, it was Brown’s job to spend several hours greasing the complicated machinery, which was the pride of the Rowley family. Several times a year, Brown also had to get under the press with a broom and sweep out every speck of paper dust.

“It was a big investment, and they wanted it absolutely pristine,” Brown said.

The press was the first thing Don Rowley saw when he walked into the building every morning.

“When Don Rowley walked in that back door in the morning, if he had his black coat on, you knew somebody was going to get their butt chewed out that day,” Brown said.

 The press required a new addition, 100 feet long and 28 feet tall, to accommodate the stacked units and controls. Another section of the addition also allowed the newspaper’s newsroom to be relocated to the first floor of the Park Avenue building. The newsroom had been on the second floor of the original section since 1928, when there was one editor and three reporters.

A newly created photo composition department shared the new addition with editorial.

There were myriad challenges in that department, as well, as employees went from building pages upside down and backward with hot type to correct orientation with “cold type” on paper. Hanson, who pasted up the first page of the Star Beacon to be printed on offset, recalls the Rowleys looking over his shoulders as he tried to re-orient his thinking to the new way of doing things.  

Brown said the new press gave paper color capabilities for the first time, but the color unit was not pressed into service until the pressmen mastered black-and-white printing. It was a huge challenge because the paper was stored in the basement, where the humidity and temperature were different than the pressroom. That created all kinds of problems when it ran through the press. Eventually, another room was built next to the pressroom to store paper.

The ink was also stored in the basement and delivered to the press via a system of tubes. Air pockets would develop in those tubes, resulting in a big spurt of ink that spoiled hundreds of papers and sounded like a gunshot, Brown said.

The new press gave the paper the ability to print larger editions, up to 48 pages. Brown said those editions, usually reserved for the Thanksgiving Day and other special papers, were particularly challenging to print because all six of the press units came into play.

Brown said other papers in the Rowley chain were also converting to offset, and the Ashtabula crew often called upon John Konegni, who worked in Geneva at the time, to help them work through problems. Konegni later returned to work at the Star Beacon and was pressroom foreman when he died in November 2011.

After working on the press crew for six years, Brown left the paper to pursue other opportunities and eventually start a cleaning service. One of his customers is the Star Beacon, and Brown’s duties have included cleaning the pressroom floor every month. He also painted the cavern twice.

Printing off-site will eliminate the need for a composition department, and Naskali, who started with the Star Beacon in 1954, prepared his last edition for Old Betsy on Thursday evening.

Publisher Frustere said CNHI probably will seek a buyer for the press and related equipment after a period of “decommissioning.” He said because of the machinery’s age, it is more likely to be used for parts than another installation.

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