Late one Friday night, almost exactly a year ago, I watched the gigantic web offset Manroland presses roll at The Age’s exquisite print plant at Tullamarine. I arrived at the end of the first edition broadsheet run and watched the printers plate up for the second edition one.
The sound of the machines, the scale of them, the beauty of Ken Sowerby’s building, the warmth of the evening, the earnestness and pride of the young printer who was my guide, the shining wall of black glass that divided the post-press hall from the near empty car park off Global Drive, all these things rushed in at me bringing delight, grief, anger, pain, disbelief.
A few weeks after my visit, the Monday to Friday Age would become a compact, a first step in a swift trip to a vanishing point, the time when the plant itself would shut, the presses would be dismantled and every single man who was making that night’s newspaper would be unemployed.
I anticipated this sad moment in my book, Stop Press: the last days of newspapers. Now the moment is here but no one has been assigned to cover the story.
The $220 million Age print plant shuts on 25 April, less than 11 years after it opened. B press has already been taken apart. Some of it was trucked up the Hume to Fairfax’s plant at Richmond, a town 65 kilometres north west of Sydney where the Sydney Morning Herald will be printed once Fairfax closes the plant at Chullora. The rest of it has gone to Fairfax’s printing hall at Ballarat (105 kilometres north west of Melbourne). From 26 April, The Age will be printed up there.
The C and D presses will also be dismantled. One is being shipped across the ditch to Fairfax New Zealand’s Auckland printing plant.
The Age has been printed in Melbourne for 160 years. The SMH has been printed in Sydney for 183 years. It is Australia’s oldest newspaper.
The phrase “historic moment” may be hackneyed but it is apt here. What a tragic moment it is. Manroland, the German company that made The Age’s magnificent presses, filed for insolvency in 2011.
As I explain in Stop Press, the closure of the Tullamarine plant is part of a much larger story: the collapse not just of newspaper manufacturing but the contraction of print manufacturing in general as the demand for printed stuff (phone books, government reports, books) drops and technology shifts. Fewer people are needed to operate new digital presses or high-speed offset ones.
The implications of this decline are potentially massive. Printing is the third largest manufacturing industry in Australia (after food manufacturing and machinery classed as “other”). Aside from the presses operated by newspaper publishers, there are about 7000 print manufacturing firms in Australia. About 80 per cent of these are sheet-fed offset printers and the rest are digital. Digital, at least, is expanding.
The craft and art of offset printing is at risk. In job adverts, people that were once described as printers are now known as “machine minders”.
Patrick Howard, the publisher of trade magazine (and website) Print 21, said many jobs would be automated. Two minders could now run a press that 20 years ago required two dozen printers.
“There’s a modern offset press … and they sell it with a savage Alsation dog to keep the printers away from the controls,” Howard said to me.
“Is that a joke?” I asked.
“Yes it is.”
I find it hard to laugh. In the past year, hundreds of people have lost jobs in print manufacturing and associated industries.
In February 2013, print giant GEON went bust. The firm employed 1200 people in Australia and New Zealand. In April, Print21 magazine reported that $65 million of late model presses and finishing kit were expected to fetch $5 million at auction.
In July 2013, Troedel-Docucopy collapsed too. Troedel & Co had merged with digital print firm Docucopy only a year earlier. Charles Troedel (1835 – 1906) set up his printing firm in 1860 when he arrived in Melbourne. The firm published the first colour lithographs in Australia and in 1968 Troedel donated its archive to the State Library of Victoria. It is the most significant printers’ archive in a public collection but the firm no longer exists.
Sensis, the Telstra-owned company that publishes the YellowPages and other paper directories, laid of 648 staff last year and has just flagged another 400 job cuts.
At the end of 2013, the last printing apprentices finished their training at RMIT’s Brunswick campus. The university’s large printing hall is shut and the presses have been sold. Spectra Training has taken over. Nationally, ‘Future Print’, a joint venture between the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and Printing Industries of Australia, is setting up a new system for print apprentice training. The project is funded by a $4.5 million Federal Government grant. I wish everyone involved in Future Print all the best. What a tough gig.
Last week, I watched a much smaller press roll at Arena Printing in Fitzroy. The printer was testing proofs of my artist newspaper, ‘Melbourne Sirius’, on the little Japanese-made sheet fed press. The registration was just right. The ink coverage on the front is perfect. I will be distributing 525 copies of my newspaper in Melbourne’s CBD on Monday 3 March – that is one copy for every dead newspaper published in Melbourne between 1838 and now. The Age is still hanging on as a printed object but for me, the closure of Tullamarine plant is a sort of death.