It’s been one problem after another for Globe presses
TAUNTON — At 9 o’clock one recent weeknight at The Boston Globe’s new, $75 million printing plant, the powerful hum of one of the massive presses abruptly wound down to an anxious silence.
Something had gone wrong, again. A worker had to hit the red “stop” button. And one more time, a team of veteran pressmen would spend the next 27 minutes fixing a problem and restarting the machinery, a time-consuming endeavor at a point in the night when every minute of the complicated journey from journalists’ fingertips to subscribers’ houses is vital.
The plant, in a Taunton office park, was envisioned as the centerpiece of the Globe’s strategy to address high printing costs at its former headquarters in Dorchester with a more modern facility, one that could also bring in revenue by printing other publications, such as The New York Times, the Boston Herald, and USA Today, as well as commercial print jobs.
But as the Morrissey Boulevard operation wound down this summer and more work was sent to Taunton, the new plant has seen a surge of problems, causing delays in getting the Globe and the other newspapers printed and out the door.
The delays — frequent, though not daily — have at times made it difficult or impossible for some home delivery carriers to complete their routes. There have also been complaints about inconsistent quality of the printing and some missing sections inside newspapers.
In building the plant, the Globe opted for an unconventional press design, meant to be economical and highly flexible. But it also guaranteed a steep learning curve for the pressroom staff and managers, experts say, and the software and equipment have been bedeviled with troubles that have cost significant time and money to diagnose and address.
Roughly 1½ years after the Globe suffered a home-delivery crisis when it switched to a new delivery vendor, problems at the Taunton plant are again testing the patience of people who want their news in print.
Earlier this month, the Boston Herald, frustrated with the ongoing problems, printed a tartly worded note to its readers, complaining that the print version of the Herald “is poorly reproduced, is frequently late or not delivered.” The Herald asked its readers for patience “while the Globe works to right the ship.”
For the time being, the Globe has shifted the printing of USA Today to a facility in Lawrence to reduce the load in Taunton, and The New York Times has split off some of its local run to a facility in Queens.
Globe senior managers acknowledge that the plant’s problems could put the newspaper’s printing contracts at risk, although they say the press problems have not led to a mass of subscriber cancellations.
Publisher John Henry apologized to Globe readers in a front-page note on Aug. 18, and said the paper was working around the clock to fix the issues.
Heads have rolled. This past week, the Globe fired two executives responsible for overseeing the Taunton facility: the chief operating officer and the vice president of operations.
“We made a change of leadership because we had lost confidence in their ability to bring us to a solution” within an acceptable timetable, Vinay Mehra, the newspaper’s president and chief financial officer, said in an interview Thursday.
Mehra is taking a leading role in straightening out the plant.
“These presses are not doomed,” Mehra said. “I feel very confident we will fix the problems. There is no silver bullet. We have to be obsessed with making this a priority.”
He attributed the troubles in Taunton to “mechanical and human problems.”
The Taunton plant uses roughly 25-year-old Goss Urbanite printing units that have been refurbished with modern controls and components, company officials said. The Morrissey Boulevard plant used different units.
“It is a dramatic change to go from working on mechanical presses to electronic ones,” Mehra said.
Among the problems in Taunton is that pressmen have not uniformly broken old habits and learned important new skills, and some senior pressmen have been resistant to change, he said.
“I don’t want to bash them, but that is human nature,” he said.
The pressmen are not to blame, said Stephen T. Sullivan, president and business representative of the Boston Newspaper Printing Pressmen’s Union, which represents pressmen, paperhandlers, and photo engravers at Taunton.
“Absolutely, unequivocally no human problem here,” Sullivan said, in an e-mail exchange with the Globe. “The problems are mechanical in press design and in fine-tuning software which is out of our purview. These aren’t insurmountable problems and we are working jointly with production management to overcome those glitches.”
Sullivan added that “there has been no suggestion or expression from anyone in management publicly or privately of any issue regarding our work. . . . To the contrary, all of our pressmen have been lauded for their efforts and cooperation in embracing the new print processes every step of the way.”
In an age of declining print readership, many newspapers in recent years have faced a fork in the road over their longstanding print operations, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. Was it time to get out of the printing business and hire an outside printing vendor? Or become the printing vendor for others?
After becoming convinced no local printer had the capacity to handle the job, the Globe elected to invest in the new plant — at a cost that exceeded the $70 million Henry paid for the newspaper and its Dorchester headquarters in 2013. The business philosophy, company executives have summed up, was to be the “last printer standing” in the region. They anticipated that the savings and revenue from the new plant would justify the large investment.
In 2015, the Globe hired Pressline Services to assemble the presses and the German computer firm EAE to write custom software to run the plant.
Pressline built a similar, though smaller, press for West Texas Printing Center, in Lubbock, Texas. The facility prints two local newspapers and does commercial print jobs.
Kristi Holt, vice president of operations for West Texas Printing, said the new setup is unconventional and comes with a steep learning curve.
“It was taking an older model press and putting the new bells and whistles and automation on it that makes it different,” she said. “First year, year-and-a-half, we struggled. Finding the demons and eliminating the demons is a long, tedious process. I feel for y’all. I’ve been where you are.”
West Texas Printing has since dramatically improved its performance and now has a good record of meeting its print deadlines, she said.
A newspaper press is not a single giant machine, but a series of components arranged in rows, and stacked upon one another, making a whole unit bigger than a mobile home. The four presses in Taunton are connected by tiers of catwalks and scaffolding. Continuous sheets of paper, known as the web, pass through the presses in a blur. Printed, cut, and folded newspapers pour out conveyors at the end. For someone who has spent a career in newspapers, a humming press churning out fresh copies of the morning paper is beautiful and mesmerizing.
The Taunton facility was phased into operation, beginning in late 2016 with the printing of the USA Today, company officials said. Early results were positive, and more work was shifted to Taunton this year. As the load increased, however, so did software and mechanical problems. Plant managers have had to call a help desk in Germany on deadline in the middle of the night to speak to engineers for the company that wrote the software to run the plant.
The Globe has called in consultants and manufacturers to help diagnose and fix problems. When it appeared that inconsistent air pressure across the factory floor could be affecting certain machines that run in part on air, the Globe installed supplemental tanks to address the problem.
The plant has also been upgrading its reel stands, the units that hold the 1,200-pound, spinning rolls of newsprint, due to ongoing problems. Plant managers say reel stand failures are the most vexing problem at the moment. A malfunctioning reel stand was responsible for the recent 9 p.m. shutdown, on Wednesday night, during The New York Times’ print run.
Here is how the reel stands are supposed to work:
As the press runs, a roll of newsprint in the reel stand spins at high speed and unspools a continuous sheet of paper. As the paper unspools, naturally, the roll gets smaller. Rolls must be replaced before they run out of paper to keep the press running. It should happen automatically.
Sensors detect when the roll is approaching the point it needs to be replaced. A belt then engages a fresh roll in the reel stand and begins to spin it. It is essential that the replacement roll is spinning at the right speed before the swap. When the replacement roll is at the proper speed, the machinery — in a blink of an eye — will paste the paper from the two rolls together and cut the old roll off. The butt end of the expired roll is ejected, and the new roll, while continuously unspooling paper, slides forward, making room for the next roll to be loaded behind it.
The press should run seamlessly through the swap. The intermittent failure of this paste-and-cut function is currently the source of much of the delays at the Taunton facility, plant managers say.
When the press stopped last Wednesday during the Times run, it was because a pressman noticed that the belt that is supposed to spin the new roll had not properly engaged. Why it failed was not immediately clear.
The pressman acted quickly and shut the press down. Had he not, the old roll would have run out of paper, like a roll of paper towels that reaches its cardboard core, and the end of the sheet would have whipped through the entire press. That is called a web break — the severing of the continuous sheet of paper that runs through the press.
Web breaks are time-consuming headaches. More like migraines, really.
After a web break, workers must lead a new sheet from a fresh roll through the entire press by hand, passing the sheet among numerous rollers. It is critical that the sheet go over some rollers and under others, from inches off the floor to three stories in the air. This process puts the press out of commission for at least 30 to 40 minutes.
Occasional web breaks are just part of life on a press. The industry standard is three web breaks per 100 rolls, company experts say. Taunton has experienced significantly more.
On Wednesday night, after the pressman hit the stop button, a worker clambered into the reel stand to carefully paste the new roll to the old sheet by hand.
The problem was not as bad as a web break, but still significant — 27 minutes lost.
“If you have two or three a night, you can see where [delays] add up very quickly,” said Larry Coan, a production director in Taunton. “Web breaks now are our biggest problem.”
Mehra did not want to offer a timetable for solving the problems, but he promised to lead a methodical process to get the plant humming. In the meantime, he said, he is busy recruiting a new head of production.