Technology of – and through – the Times
A daily paper is something most people take for granted – like the sun, it’s simply expected to appear every morning. But the next time you’re sipping your morning coffee and idly flipping through The Aspen Times, consider what it takes to get 40 to 100 pages of newsprint onto the streets every day. Even more impressive, think about the effort it took to get a paper out before computers, before fax machines, even before automobiles.The Aspen Times’ first press weighed 6 tons and was hauled over Independence Pass on sledges. The type in the early issues – starting on April 23, 1881 – was set completely by hand. It produced a large broadsheet of four pages, eight columns apiece, with no photos – precisely what not to do today, designwise.
Technology has come a long way in the last 125 years, but from a modern standpoint, it certainly seemed to creep along until the computer age. When Verlin Ringle owned The Aspen Times in the postwar Quiet Years, from 1945 to 1956, as publisher-editor he would operate the massive flatbed press himself, sometimes with the help of his son. The press was in the middle of the current Aspen Times’ building (where the publisher’s office is today) – the story goes that a hole was cut in the floor and the press simply was dropped into the basement when a new press was purchased, since it was too heavy to move otherwise.Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who started working at the weekly Times in 1952, remembers that press day used to be “a big day for everybody on staff. We all had to work.” Some staffers stacked papers, some carried them to the front office to be addressed to subscribers, and others sold them to local kids, who would buy papers for a nickel and then sell them for a dime on the street.
Things started changing more rapidly in the 1960s. By then the paper was using Linotype – instead of setting the type by hand, a huge typewriterlike machine would set a whole line of type at one time. Until the mid-1960s, photos had to be sent to Grand Junction, where the image would be transferred to a plate and sent back in a format the press could accommodate. Around that time, the Times went to “offset” printing – pasting stories, ads and headlines onto a page, then photographing it.”We had all kinds of machines to produce ads on,” said Su Lum, an ad rep who has worked at the Times since 1965. There was a typewriterlike contraption on which everything had to be typed twice, and another machine that one had to slide each individual letter into place, one by one. Lum recalls a somewhat Dickensian atmosphere – schoolchildren were hired to take buckets of lead filings from the machines to a furnace in the basement.By the 1970s Aspen was definitely no longer a typical small town, and its newspaper reflected that. For most of its history, the paper’s financial health depended more on its extensive subscriber list (people who had, in slower times, moved away and relied on the Times to keep them informed about Aspen) and “job” printing. Bil Dunaway, who bought the Times in 1956, had sold the printing operation to Fritz Stammberger, but somehow managed to partner with him to reap the benefits of the commercial printing venture.Few businesses could afford advertising, until the fortunes of the town grew, and people needed advertising to set themselves apart. The influx of business-minded people that developed Snowmass in the late 1960s brought a certain level of sophistication to ads and graphics, said Lum. Finally, in the ’70s, the paper was able to survive on ad sales. That trend has only steamrolled into the present day.”It’s a pretty amazing thing that this town can sustain so much advertising,” said Lum. “You put a 2-inch ad in the paper and everybody in town reads it.”
Editorially, the Times has always been important to the community, said Mary Hayes, who has researched the paper’s history over the years. The first edition in 1881 actually proclaimed that, “A newspaper in a rich and growing camp like Aspen is more than a advantage; it is a necessity.” Dunaway took that responsibility seriously – he would not allow wire (nonlocal) stories, attended every City Council meeting, and believed that the Times should reflect the community.”You can’t throw a stone into a pond in Aspen without the ripples affecting everybody,” said Hayes. “The paper is the backbone of the community.”These beliefs only allowed the paper to grow and change. In 1972, editor Nick Pabst and Chris Cassatt, current Times cartoonist and the Times’ first photographer, redesigned the paper to utilize more and bigger photos while Dunaway was on vacation. Dunaway, who was legendary for wanting the latest technology but not wanting to spend the money, thought photos were more trouble than they were worth. And they were, in a way – to transfer a negative into newsprint was a complex multistep process involving lots of chemicals and hot metal. It was also very pricey.”There was this incredible physical process to put everything together,” recalls Cassatt. “It was an education.”Heralding even bigger changes in that era were the use of computers and moving the press. Reporters would type their stories on Microteks, which would spit them out on photographic paper in columns (that were usually not the right length, said Cassatt). By the early ’80s, the ad and graphics departments were using Mac Pluses, for their superior graphics capability. The press eventually outgrew its space in the Times building and moved to a larger space near the present-day Clark’s Market in the late ’70s. By the early 1980s, the weekly Times had grown to 160 pages or so in high season (Christmas and Fourth of July).”Technology was continually evolving and changing, and we were constantly learning new ways to do things,” said Cassatt.
It was an outside influence that led to one of the Times’ most significant changes: The Aspen Daily News, which started publishing as a daily mimeographed street sheet in 1978, started cutting into the Times’ revenue. By the mid-1980s, something needed to be done to stay competitive. One more unit was added to the press to allow four-color printing on the front page, and The Aspen Times daily was launched in November 1986, on Election Day.
“When the daily was started we decided we wouldn’t go below 16 pages no matter what,” said Arlan Hemphill, who was hired to run the Mill Street press and who works at the Times’ current press in Gypsum. “We printed 16 pages for months and months – sometimes it was close [to not making it] – and the first time we broke 20 pages we celebrated.”Over the next few years, the paper grew to 32 pages, the maximum the Aspen plant could print at one time. The Times went to two sections in the early ’90s, which “changed everything,” said Hemphill. The sheer volume of paper, plates and other supplies that needed to be kept on hand for a daily press operation began to overwhelm the space – paper rolls covered the floor so that people had to walk across them to get to the other side of the room. The press staff doubledIn November 2000, after Swift Newspapers bought several papers in the valley, printing was moved to the Glenwood Post’s press. Meanwhile, plans were in place to build a state-of-the-art, $7 million printing plant in Gypsum, at the headquarters of Swift’s Colorado mountain newspaper group. About the same time, pages stopped being “pasted up” and hand-delivered to the press. Everything started to be sent electronically, and a whole new age of troubleshooting – led by computer technicians, this time – had begun.
Something else had changed, though. Corporatization and cooperation among Swift’s Colorado newspapers decentralized how the Times gets into readers’ hands. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a press in the purple building on Main Street, with the smell of newsprint and hot lead permeating the building. That start-to-finish operation probably gave employees a better sense of the whole process, and perhaps even an emotional closeness. Hayes talks about waking up in the middle of the night with an important edit and walking over to paste it up before the typesetters could get to it the next day. Other staffers talk about pulling all-nighters, eating, sleeping and, yes, partying in the building. It was a tight-knit group.”We drank a lot of beer and smoked a lot of pot,” recalls Cassatt. “It was a long day, every day. It was a blur and took a lot of energy. I wish I had that energy now.”
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