Over Spring Break, we Mecombers got a great opportunity to visit an Upstate newspaper organization, the Observer-Dispatch, in Utica. It was an enlightening visit, and the folks at the OD gave us a wonderful tour.
The building, a beautiful structure built in the early 1900s, seems like a fortress on an island in the middle of a flat wasteland of vacant lots. This was once the location of many manufacturing businesses and factories in the heyday of Upstate New York (1880s to 1950s). Utica, a workingman’s town, was never on the level of fancy condos, but there are many handsome buildings in Utica. Several have been razed until a local group got together to purchase historical properties to restore them. Not far from where the OD sits Charles Grandison Finney led his blazing revivals in the 1820s and 30s. Utica was once part of the “burned-over” district, thus called because of the wave of zeal and piety that consumed the area. His revivals, proclaiming tenets of a “social gospel,” inspired the abolition movement and the justice-for-women movement in this nation. Someday I hope to write a post about the riveting history of this city, but for now I’ll (try to) stay focused on the history of the area’s most influential news outlet.
The Observer-Dispatch began in 1817, founded as the Utica Observer by Eliasaph Dorchester. It became the Observer-Dispatch after a merger in the 1920s, and became part of the Gannett publication outlet for the next 90 years. The newspaper was recently bought by GateHouse Media. Several new developments to the news organization have arisen, some which we were privy to during our tour.
When we entered the building, we came to the receptionist’s area. The paintings on the walls are very attractive, and, history students that we all are, were greatly encouraged by the precepts written here.
I closely surveyed the walls with interest. They are very well done. Hammurabi, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Ghandi are painted. Yet I was disappointed that the person most responsible for altering the entire history of mankind- Jesus the Christ- was not on the wall (although there is a cross).
We met our tour guide, Michelle. She made us feel at home as she directed us to the various parts of the building where all the action happens. We were guided to the third floor of the building, to the media department.
This department interested me the most. We met the new media director, Bill, and had some lively conversations– everything from homeschooling to Ed Hanna to newspaper ethics. Bill kept us hopping through the various departments, keeping up a constant conversation while streams of reporters darted between us. Bill brisked us through the empty sports department (empty since sports dudes work in the evenings).
Because of my background in radio and my interest in computer graphics, I loved learning about the creative aspect of reporting and design. I was absolutely enthralled, learning about the online features of the newspaper. The OD has an excellent online presence among media outlets. We met Fran, who heads up the internet newspaper department. He revealed to us some new developments pending for the online OD, including an entirely new look for the website (it looks great!), and the inception of some really amazing… well, they shared their plans with us but hadn’t told the boss yet. Suffice it to say that I think Fran does great on video. 😉
We were fascinated about the online department of the OD. I rely 100% on the online edition and we discussed the two most popular sections of the online OD: Breaking News headlines and the Obituaries! LOL!
After our tour of the media department, Michelle led us to various other departments: advertising, customer service, the classified ad area, etc. She led us down to the lower level of the building, where the papers are printed. I wish I had a better grasp of the process. It was a little sketchy to me, and in some rooms the machines were so noisy I couldn’t have heard anything if I wanted to. I was surprised to discover how technologically advanced printing a newspaper has become. I don’t know why, but I still had the idea of Gutenberg and movable type in my head. My, how naive I was! We watched several enormous machines create printing plates, which were thin metal sheets gently etched with lasers. It was amazing. These plates were created to be attached to large rollers and smeared with newsprint ink (a mix including organic materials). The rollers were run through these huge printing presses (in the next room). I found it unbelievable that such lightly etched metal plates could print such small print as I’ve read in a newspaper, and so meticulously. Regrettably, I couldn’t take any photos (due to the light-sensitive properties of the plates). I can only express my amazement at the technical capabilities of the printing process. Making a newspaper is a complicated process!
The room that held the presses was enormous. We could not delve very far into the room, but I took a few snapshots from my vantage point. If you click on the photos to see a larger view, the objects in the photos may be more comprehensible.
The next section we visited was the area where collation, packing, and stacking of the printed papers occurs. There were many people hard at work in these areas. The work must be grueling after a long day’s work. The photo below shows a collating machine. The Sunday comics (or, “funny papers” as I call them) were being prepared. Workers fed papers into the machine to fold the papers and combine them with other sections.
The folded papers that make up the interior sections of the Sunday newspaper edition were stacked by a noisy machine. The rhythmic banging of the levers was mesmerizing. It made me sleepy.
Workers in this end of the machine compiled the final paper in its entirety.
The newspaper was ready to be packed onto pallets and shipped throughout the Mohawk Valley.
Thus ended our tour! We comfortably chatted with Michelle about the Mohawk Valley and the OD. The paper has a circulation reaching into the hundreds of thousands, especially since the paper acquired its competitor, the Pennysaver, in 2004. It was a great educational experience to see the inner workings of a newspaper organization.