Bloggers write

"Write something worth reading or do something worth writing" A blog by Amy Willis, a multimedia journalist based in London

Visit to the Guardian printing press

I spent a day at the Guardian offices after winning a writing competition. This is how it went. Photos to come.

9am

I arrived at the offices in Kings Cross and immediately realised not sending a what-is-the-dress-code email was a mistake. My prim and proper suit stood out a mile  from the smart-casual jeans and jacket ethos of the uber-trendy Guardian. Whoops. What a fool.

I met Matt and Jennifer, the Guardian PR managers who had arranged the visit, plus John the other winner and we headed to the canteen for breakfast. I had already eaten but was reluctant to reject a free meal.

10am – the editorial conference

A circular mass of bright-yellow slouchy couches filled the room with various other couches dotted around it and a gigantic television spanned one of the conference room walls. I’ve seen a number of editorial conferences before but this was completely different.

The editors slunk in (the politics editor had brought her son). Some opting to recline on the yellow couches, others leaned casually against the wall and some found space sitting on the floor. It had a very open feel to it.

The conference started with editor Alan Rusbridger –  described to me as “the Harry Potter lookalike” because he has brown hair and circular glasses – saying what he liked and didn’t like about the day’s paper. This was followed by a discussion of new stories and a debate on the loophole culture of business. Even John, the other competition winner who was sitting next to me, chipped in with a comment in the debate. It was all very open.

11am

The conference concluded and we were given a tour of the editorial office followed by lunch. Oddly, I sampled pigeon for the first time which staff assured me wasn’t fresh from Trafalgar Square.

3pm – the printing press

We were then taken to Stratford for a surprise visit to the printing press. After fastening our fluorescent safety vests and meeting Mike, the press supervisor and our press tour guide, we entered a large warehouse stacked high with rolls upon rolls of blank paper to the left and a mass of machinery intertwined with stairwells to the right. This was the printing press warehouse.

It was like being shrunk. The rolls of paper were as high as my shoulders and apparently held enough paper to span several miles if unravelled. Everything in the warehouse was operated by computer and the few workers there had more of a monitoring job rather than anything hands on.

Automatic machines put the rolls into long lines ready to be put into the press for printing. But before printing could start the fully-subbed pages from the editorial office needed to be electronically transferred so they can be transmitted by laser onto metal printing plates which are needed to put the image on paper.

But how is the electronic image transferred to the plate? Well, it comes down to a substance I call “green stuff”. The metal plate, made from aluminium, starts life with a layer of this water-soluble green stuff on it. This green stuff hardens when the lasers zap it making the green stuff’s molecules stick to the aluminium surface. The stuff that is hardened is no longer water soluble so when the plate is washed only the non-lasered green stuff comes off leaving the lettering and dots that make up the image. Genius. But each plate only makes up the lettering and dots for one colour. This means that for the each page a total of four plates (each slightly different) must be made for the ink-colours black, magenta, yellow and cyan. Once all the plates are ready they are loaded as templates into the machines ready for printing. For any new editions the plates have to be remade.

When browsing your daily paper you can tell what edition it is by looking for the little asterisks on the left hand side of the page. Asterisks at the top of the page indicate if there have been any changes for that edition. For example if there are three asterisks on the left side but one on the top it means it is the third edition but that page is the same as for the first edition – i.e. no changes have been made.

During the printing process the paper makes its way up from bottom to top back down to the bottom again, gradually becoming more and more newspaper like. Printing takes place at the bottom of the press upward (the four colours are printed separately) and slicing the paper into pages happens at the top. Folding takes place back down at the bottom again. The finished newspaper is then picked up on the pincher thingies (I always used to think these were for drying the ink on paper- I was wrong) and taken to the other side of the warehouse to be put into bundles ready for dispatch.

Et voila. The process is complete. If you ever get the chance to see a printing press in action, it is well worth it. It is a  complicated process but the fact that his is all done by machines is mesmerising and really makes you appreciate how much technology has advanced in the last decade. Truly spectacular.

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Filed under: blog posts, Online Journalism

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