Travis White and his co-workers watch as the last of the night’s 58,000 newspapers come off the Asheville Citizen-Times printing press. No words. No fanfare. There’s not much to say when a job’s finished for good.
“I hate it, really,” says White, a night-side supervisor in the pressroom. “My grandfather worked here for 44 years. My dad worked here 20-some years. My dad used to bring me to work with him sometimes. I grew up in the mailroom and the pressroom.”
There’s a slow quieting of whirring machinery. It’s about 2:45 a.m. Sunday, and a sense of resignation hangs all around. The nightly process of printing a daily newspaper, a ritual practiced for close to 150 years in Asheville, has just come to an end. Permanently.
“I’m gonna miss it,” White says. “I think everybody here is.”
The 60 employees of the Sardis Road printing plant in western Buncombe County got word about six weeks ago that the plant was closing, so there’s been time to process, time to prepare. The company has offered severance pay, and there’s unemployment pay to fall back on. Several employees have accepted jobs offered to them in Greenville, S.C., where the newspaper will be printed starting Sunday night.
The largest newspaper chain in the U.S., Gannett Co., owns the Citizen-Times and the Greenville News and decided to consolidate printing operations. The closure comes as Gannett struggles with declining revenues and general uncertainty over the future of newspapers. Earlier this year, the company cut about 2,500 jobs across all its newspapers in a lay-off that included 16 people at the Citizen-Times.
The past year brought other restructuring moves. The Citizen-Times increased the price of single copies of the newspaper from 50 cents to 75 cents. And with the start of printing in Greenville, the newspaper will be slightly narrower and contain fewer pages in its daily edition. Editors have not yet announced any content changes.
At the printing plant, none of that really matters. It’s simply time to move on.
“It’s just sad to see this place close,” says Billy Carver, a mailroom supervisor with more than 16 years invested at the plant. “I never thought this day would come so soon. The paper’s not going to be the same, and I think a lot of customers may feel like it’s not a hometown paper anymore” now that it’s printed out of town, he says.
Carver started working at the plant a year after graduating high school, holding various jobs while moving his way up. As his older co-workers like to say, “We raised him from a pup.”
The loss of that sense of closeness might hurt the most, Carver says.
“It’s like I’m losing my second family. It’s going to be tough to start over,” but he adds that, “like any American,” he’ll press on.
The paper was printed for years inside the Citizen-Times building at 14 O. Henry Ave. in downtown Asheville. At the time the building opened under publisher/owner Charles Webb in 1939, the site was hailed as one of the most modern structures of its kind in the U.S. and housed the Asheville Citizen, the Asheville Times and WWNC radio station. Before that, various iterations of the two newspapers existed around Asheville at a number of locations and were run by notable characters. Webb, for example, famously used his newspaper clout to push for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a controversial stance at the time. Randolph Shotwell, who founded the Asheville Citizen in 1869, was a Civil War veteran and active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Sardis plant was also considered a technical marvel when it opened in that it allowed remote printing. The massive, German-made offset printing press started running in the cavernous 40,000-square-foot Sardis Road plant in 1986. Over the years, the 600-ton press and its eight units wore down. Electrical components blew out and required constant repair. Adjusting ink and water mixes on the giant rollers that bore the printing plates became a time-consuming chore that affected print quality.
So in 2007, Gannett invested $3.5 million in a modern upgrade that replaced a big electrical panel with sleek computer controls that could make adjustments on the fly.
It apparently wasn’t enough.
“A business does what a business has got to do,” says Philip Morris, a mailroom night-shift operator with 19-and-a-half years at the Citizen-Times.
“I’m going to miss the business. You put 19 and a half years into it, you gotta love it,” he says.
Morris says he’s not sure what’s ahead, but he’s not worried. “The Lord got me this far. He’ll get me the rest of the way.”
Outside on the loading dock, the last of the newspaper bundles come off conveyors. They’re ready for newspaper carriers like Phil Ladowski, who fills his van with about 3,000 copies. An itinerant veteran of the business, Ladowski says he’s worked for various newspapers around the country for 30-some odd years.
The constancy and the permanence of newspapers don’t seem so weighty in his hands as he talks about his work and contemplates the changes in the early morning dark.
“It’s the end of an era,” he says, and tosses another bundle into the van.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor