116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — One of the men who runs the giant press at Color Web Printers pretty much sums up how he and his fellow employees feel about the closing of their newspaper printing plant.
“We knew it was coming,” says Bret Underwood, 52, who’s been with The Gazette or Color Web for 32 years. “Some are saying it’s bittersweet. But I don’t want anyone thinking I’m bitter. I say I’m sad — sad the industry went the way it did, sad that people I’ve worked with for years are going their separate ways. It’s ‘sweet’ because we don’t have to keep waiting for that news.”
Color Web Printers, at 4700 Bowling St. SW, will print its last Gazette on Tuesday. Printing of the newspaper moves Wednesday to Gannett Publishing Services in Des Moines. It marks the end of an era that started 138 years ago, on Jan. 10, 1883, when the first Gazette rolled off a press in Cedar Rapids.
The Gazette is one of 10 newspapers nationwide to outsource its printing so far this year, following 19 newspapers making that move in 2019.
“While we’re outsourcing our printing, The Gazette will continue to be delivered and filled with news, sports, features, opinion and advertising that people can’t find anywhere else,” Gazette Executive Editor Zack Kucharski said. “Our deadlines move up around an hour and a half, which mainly will impact sports, but we’re beefing up our already strong online presence, at TheGazette.com, with additional resources.”
About 40 Color Web employees are losing their jobs, in addition to the 22 dayside workers who were laid off in May.
Sound Publishing, a subsidiary of Black Press Ltd., is buying the Goss Universal 70 press that anchors the Color Web plant. The company publishes nearly 40 newspaper titles in Washington state and Alaska. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
• 220 feet: Length (three-fourths the length of a football field)
• 40 feet, 9 and 5/8ths inches: Height (three stories, with a fourth story in the middle)
• 442 tons: Weight
• 23 mph: Maximum speed, or 70,000 copies per hour
• 178: Number of drive motors
• 59: Central processing units
• 3,500 tons: Amount of concrete in foundation (enough to pour a sidewalk 7 miles long), with 130,000 pounds of steel reinforcing bar
• 250,000 pounds: Amount of black ink used per year (more than 31,000 gallons)
• 255,000 pounds: Among of color ink used per year (almost 32,000 gallons)
• 250: Number of rolls of paper used each week
• 950 pounds: Weight of typical paper roll, most of it from suppliers in Canada
The disassembly of the 442-ton press will take months, requiring a team of experts and more than 55 semi-trailer trucks to transport parts to the Pacific Northwest, Sound Publishing President Josh O'Connor said.
The company aims to have the press operating there by April, he said.
Closing the printing plant and selling the press was “a difficult decision because it affects our fellow employee-owners, many of whom are longtime employees,” said Daniel Goldstein, chief executive officer of Folience, the parent company of The Gazette and Color Web Printers. “But the changing economics and consolidation of the print industry necessitates this.”
Paul Buhr, 63, Color Web’s director of operations, thinks that consolidation will continue. “We’re going to see more of that in the next three to five years as additional facilities shut down,” he said.
Closing the printing plant, he said, was a “difficult decision that had to be made by Folience. When you look at the numbers, you understand why. It was a tough decision, but somebody had to do it.”
Color Web recently lost contracts to print the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald and the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch as those newspapers also consolidated their printing operations.
“I think if we had not lost three large customers in the past six months, we would be at a different point,” Buhr said. “We had a good plan in place. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to put that plan into action in terms of growing revenue.”
Buhr lauded the people who work — and have worked — at the 209,000-square-foot production facility.
“They’re great people, a solid team that gets the job done every single night, makes deadline, puts out a top-quality product,” he said. “And they don’t quit. They stay on it till they get it done. They have a lot of pride when a job is well done.”
The people who work on and around the press are being assisted by Folience in their job searches.
In recent interviews, they said that while they understand the numbers driving the decision, they’re devoted to newspapers and it hurts to part ways.
“We’re not part of the newsroom, but we’re close to it. Stuff like the elections — you’re right there, waiting on the news to come. You’re part of it,” said Chester Truesdell, 43, a press operator for 27 years. “We called it the ‘daily miracle’ all the time. It’s the whole process — how this many people come together to get news distributed.”
Truesdell, like any newspaper person, has a tote full of memorable Gazette editions. One is from 2000, when the press crew produced its first spadea — a three-fourths-page wrap around Page 1 — on the new Universal press. The spadea, to be filled with election results, incorrectly came over with all zeros in the results column. It was not the first time — or the last — a press operator alerted the newsroom to a problem needing fixing.
Press operator Underwood, another fan of newspapers, said it’s “something special” to see your name or picture in a newspaper.
“It’s not like today with the computers,” he said. “Anybody can get their name and picture on the computer. It doesn’t have that same feeling as a newspaper.”
Both men recall being “thrilled” with moving from the “dark, dirty” pressroom in the basement of the downtown Gazette building to the spacious, sparkling production facility on Bowling Street.
Both are proud of Color Web’s safety record, which, at one point, surpassed four years for people working around huge, fast-moving machines every night without any time lost to injury.
Joe and the press
Joe Hladky, former president and publisher of The Gazette Company, acutely feels the loss of the press and the Color Web facility he greenlighted in the late 1990s.
“We would have never built the press — nor would we ever have needed a press that size — if it was just going to print The Gazette,” said Hladky, 81.
Hladky said he starts each day by reading three newspaper e-editions.
“The press was ink on paper, and that was the only way we had to deliver the news product for many years,” he said. “That’s been changing for some time, and now the way news is delivered has completely changed.
“The press is just a tool. It put the ink on the paper. It’s the way we had to efficiently deliver the reportorial product, and that reporting is what is really unique,” Hladky says.
“I’ve always felt a city the size of Cedar Rapids must have a strong newsgathering organization. … The reporting and newsgathering is what must be protected.”
A number of Color Web employees recall Hladky’s special relationship with the printing operations. He would show up late at night to watch the press runs, sometimes with an ice cream cone in hand.
Name: Color Web Printers, 4700 Bowling St. SW, Cedar Rapids
Size: 209,000 square feet, with 161,280 square feet of renovated space
History: Construction and remodeling of the former Goss plant began in October 1997, with $50 million invested in the building and new Goss Universal 70 press.
Operational: The Gazette was first printed in its entirety on the new press June 28, 1999.
Closing: 2021, with Aug. 24 the last night of printing The Gazette.
Peak employment: More than 200 in the early 2000s when it was printing Sunday color comics for 130 newspapers
Continuing: Digital Print business unit, established in December 2010, will relocate and remain in business
Hladky oversaw The Gazette’s transition from a “hot type” to a “cold type” offset printing press in 1977 when The Gazette was at 500 Third Ave. SE. He was there, too, for the long hours and challenging rollout of the new Universal press in 1999, when it was plagued with alignment problems and missing deadlines.
It was on one of those early mornings that Hladky helped remove a web break — essentially, a paper jam — and ended up covered in ink. He stayed until the paper got out and showed up in his ink-covered shirt and jeans for a meeting later that morning with the press’ manufacturing representative. The rep looked at Hladky and knew the meeting was not going to go well.
“It’s certainly not a clean or glamorous job most of the time,” Hladky said. “It’s hard work, and I don’t think people realize how long you have to have paper stay in a single piece so it flows through. There’s a lot of art to it.”
‘Kind of inevitable’
When Color Web opened in 1999, business was good, with more than 200 people working at the printing plant in the early 2000s.
The company secured a contract with King Features Syndicate in 2000 that had the press running 2 million comics sections for 130 newspapers each week. King went elsewhere in 2013 but came back in 2018, though the number of comics sections has dwindled to 144,000.
The large contract was possible because of the Universal 70 press, “a beast, a dynamic, technological marvel,” said Joe Wise, 57, Color Web’s planning and scheduling manager who’s been with the company 39 years. “You could do anything with it … and we did.
“But the maintenance costs are higher. It’s not just updating a few shafts on the press. It’s upgrading all of the computers for all of the drives. All the press units talk to each other through computers. There’s a cost to those upgrades, to keep technology up to snuff.”
Kevin Zacek, 56, the plant’s production manager who has 38 years with the company, said the Color Web closure was “kind of inevitable,” given the numbers.
Even though the closure “is kind of a relief, Aug. 24 will be a sad day,” he said. “It’s going to be rough. I’ll miss everyone.”
Zacek was there for the 1999 rollout of the new press, and he found the diesel necessary to keep Color Web’s huge generator running for more than 50 days after the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho. The generator powered the press and also the newsroom, which set up shop in a Color Web conference room for two weeks, continuing publication without interruption.
“You don’t think about it,” said Zacek, a self-described “adrenaline junkie.” “You just get the job done. Whatever happens doesn’t faze us.”
Thriving on chaos
The other important part of Color Web that is dissolving is Operations — the people who get the inserts into newspapers, bundle the papers and get them out the door to carriers and the post office on a deadline as rigorous as the one in the newsroom.
It’s where supervisor Greg Brown, 62, has worked 45 years and supervisor Kelly Dekko, 61, has worked 34 years.
“The work’s not for everyone,” Dekko said. “You have to thrive under that deadline and be able to survive the chaos.
“I really can’t live without the paper,” he added. “Algorithms deliver the things you want to see on your phone, so the news is tailored to what you want to see. It’s the difference between eating candy and a nutritious meal. Candy tastes good, but it doesn’t provide the ‘nutrition’ a newspaper does.”
Also, he said, “newspapers play an important role in society because the stories, the editors, are held accountable for what’s printed. It’s as verifiable as possible. News on your phone — it might be a 13-year-old sitting in his mom’s basement typing what he thinks the news should be. People get misguided or misinformed. That’s why it’s important that we have local and national newspapers. It’s important to democracy.”
Brown noted another aspect of newspapers, recalling the time his son once said there was “nothing to do” in Cedar Rapids. He asked Brown how he found out about places to go. Brown handed him a Gazette.
But Brown also told about the day his wife, who works at Camp Tanager, went to work and pinned a Gazette page on the wall that showed pictures of kids at the camp.
“One of the kids comes up and is real excited, ‘My picture’s in the newspaper!’ And a 6- or 7-year-old asks him, ‘What’s a newspaper?’ ”
Gazette Executive Editor Kucharski, 42, said the Color Web employees have been “outstanding partners and stewards, making sure we’ve always been there for our audience.”
“They always make it happen, always taking the time to make sure we look good,” he said. “We know it hasn’t always been easy, though their professionalism made it look that way.
“They’ve shared their talent every night — even weekends and holidays — to help us to fulfill what’s been our mission since our company’s formation 138 years ago: providing news and information to make Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa a better place to live.
“We won’t forget, and we will be forever grateful for their work.”
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