Tribune Printing Plant

Tribune Printing Plant

Several weeks ago, I received a notice that the Chicago Tribune was offering a two-hour tour of its Chicago Avenue printing and distribution plant, referred to as the Freedom Center.  My impression was that this was a one-time event, so I immediately purchased two $25 dollar tickets.  It turns out that the Tribune offers the tour nine times a year--once a month except in October, November, and December.   Without doubt the tour is worth every penny, particularly because photography is allowed throughout the visit, except in the plate room.  I am not quite sure why photography was restricted in that room, but those are the rules, and I was more than happy to abide by them.

The facility contains 900,000 square feet of space.  It employs somewhere around 625 people over three shifts.  The busiest time in the plant is after 8PM.  The Freedom Center replaced the old plant, which was in the basement of Tribune Tower.  That facility was dirty and dangerous.

What fascinated me the most was the plant's cleanliness.  Aside from the third-floor railing, which we were advised not to touch because of ink buildup, there is no evidence of the ink or grime that I associate with printing.  I wouldn't eat off the floors, but even that is a close call.  I was told that the Tribune uses a Zamboni-like machine daily to keep the floors clean and free of hazards.  

The plant is the largest newspaper printing facility in the country, which should come as no surprise because it prints not only the Chicago Tribune, but also midwest editions of the New York Times, Wall Street JournalBarron's, and Investor's Business Daily.  The plant also prints the Chicago Sun-Times, two Spanish-language newspapers, numerous suburban newspapers, and publications from the Archdiocese of Chicago.  Interestingly, it does not print the advertising inserts that are included in the newspaper.  Advertisers often want a glossy look, so they rely on local printers who can handle the ink and paper, which are then shipped to the Tribune for insertion into the newspaper.  

One of the more impressive rooms is the warehouse where the newsprint is stored. There is a two-week supply, with another week's supply on freight cars headed to Chicago from Canada.  The rolls of newsprint is off-loaded from boxcars.  A huge overhead crane system then stacks the rolls, which are held in place by a suction system as they are lowered into position.  When the crane is in operation, nobody is allowed in the room because occasionally a roll gives way.  Even though a person may be relatively far from that roll, it can travel across the warehouse, which creates an obvious hazard.

John Healy, who was our guide, and a terrific one at that, told us that originally the Tribune assumed that freighters would deliver the newsprint via the Chicago River.  The newspaper used to be printed in the Tribune Tower, and at that location, the river is deep enough to permit large freighters to navigate and dock, but that is not the case on the northern branch.  The Tribune was told it could dredge that portion of the  river, but it declined the offer because that would have meant that it was responsible in perpetuity for maintaining the river's  new depth.  Barges were not an option because the newsprint needs to be protected from the elements, so railcars were the solution.

Out tour lasted about 2.5 hours.  It was information packed, but even so, it is hard to grasp exactly how a newspaper comes together, particularly given that the laser plates containing the images only contain a small portion of the total newspaper, which means there is a lot of folding and assembly.  Digital technology plays a large role.  We heard the story about how Tribune photographer Brian Cassella captured the photograph of the Cubs immediately after the last out in the seventh game of last year's World Series.  The Tribune had two photographers on the field, with the photo files automatically being uploaded from their cameras to the Tribune's servers.  It sounds as if the entire staff was on duty that night, with everyone watching the game at their desks and in conference rooms while waiting for the outcome.  The Tribune's managing editor needed the story and the photograph pronto.  A committee had already written the headline for a Cubs' victory.  Given the technology, the editors had chosen the photograph before Cassella had a chance to review his files, which answers the question as to who handles post-capture processing.

At the end of the tour, the guides provide some nice souvenirs.  The first is a copy of the edition reporting the 9/11 attacks.  The second is the printing plate for the front page of the  2016 World Series victory edition.  Everyone can also keep their earplugs.

The tours, which start at 9AM, are limited to about 20 people.  For the schedule, call the Tribune, or check the ticketing site.

Here are some facts I picked up on the today's tour:

  1. It can take between 3 and 11 people to run a press.
  2. The presses can make up to 70,000 impressions per hour.
  3. The New York Times pays for whiter and heavier grade of newsprint.
  4. The Tribune's first edition was published on June 10, 1847.  In 1851, Joseph Medill, the namesake for Northwestern University's School of Journalism, signed on as the first managing editor.  Colonel McCormick became the publisher in 1920.  Shortly thereafter, a competition was held for the design of what is now the familiar Gothic Revival Tribune Tower, which is relatively tame given that one architect submitted a design for a skyscraper fashioned as a Chinese pagoda.  Personally, I would have awarded the $100,000 prize to the architect who designed a very modern tower based on De Stijl principles.

Most if not all of these photographs were shot at 6,400 ISO, so they are grainy.  Click on a photograph to enlarge it.

An Out-of-Service Machine for Inserting Advertising Supplements into Newspapers

The Sunday New York Times on the Presses

The Sunday New York Times on the Press

Controls for a Printing Press

The Presses

Crane Moving Rolls of Newsprint Held in Place Through Suction Cups

Rolls of Newsprint Waiting to Be Loaded into the Presses

Rolls of Newsprint Moving on Tracks (Moo)

Rolls of Newsprint in the Warehouse

Calatrava in Milwaukee

Calatrava in Milwaukee