Pressing on into the future
Feb. 4, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

The old mailroom at the Duluth News Tribune will soon fade into history.

The company, now owned by Forum Communications, has purchased a new Goss International Community press and will move its printing and distribution operation from the basement of its downtown office to a new state-of-the-art 35,000-square-foot facility on Airpark Boulevard.

I remember the first time I walked down the alley between Superior Street and First Street near Fifth Avenue West and entered the mailroom.

As the door closed behind me, I found myself in a strange new world.

In addition to an assortment of complicated machines, I discovered the strangest collection of oddballs I have ever encountered in one place.

It was like a casting call for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which had come out a few years earlier, and I half expected Jack Nicholson to appear at any moment.

The inmates in the mailroom howled, emitted various animal noises, and engaged in all sorts of bizarre behavior.

I later learned this was their normal response when anyone new entered their domain, and eventually, I joined them.

This was my first job in the newspaper industry, apart from a few paper routes.

I spent more than four years working in that mailroom.

The experience helped me learn patience, since the shifts were long and the work monotonous.

It also helped to sharpen my storytelling skills. Having a captive audience for hours at a time led me to weave stories out of stray bits of information just to pass the time.

I didn’t realize it then, but cobbling stray facts into stories was good experience for writing a weekly column.

There were some interesting characters on the crew, and I learned by observing them.

The environment was noisy and dirty, and the periods of confinement long, but, like the crew of a pirate ship, we made our own entertainment.

The cast of colorful characters also included pressmen, drivers, and a member of the custodial staff, known affectionately as “the fat little janitor.” Clad in the uniform of his trade, he perpetually had a nasty, cheap cigar protruding from the corner of his mouth, although I never saw him light one. He chewed them, and I suspect he ate at least one cigar during every shift.

It was useful to watch how people coped with hour after hour of monotonous labor.

With the roar of the press in the background and a steady stream of papers passing in front of them, some retreated into their own heads, and survived by using their imagination. I have sometimes found this skill beneficial when confronted with a long board meeting.

Jobs were scarce in those days. An indicator of how bad times were was the practice of selling shifts.

At the end of each Saturday/Sunday shift, the workers would gather around the foreman’s desk.

Written on a yellow legal pad, he would have a list of the available shifts for the week ahead, and the number of people required for each shift.

The foreman would fill each shift with interested candidates based upon seniority.

Some of the long-term employees would sign up for more shifts than they intended to work. They would later sell the shifts to anyone who would pay the price.

Those who “bought” a shift might end up working an hour or more for free as the result of these payments, but they were so desperate for work they accepted it.

The company did not condone the arrangement, and the foreman threatened to withhold shifts from anyone caught selling them, but it remained standard practice.

I missed out on a lot as a result of working every Saturday night throughout my high school career, but I was happy to at least have a job.

When most people were waking up to their coffee and Sunday paper, the ink-stained wretches of the mailroom were coughing up paper dust and heading home to sleep.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that was not the kind of job I wanted as a career.

I remember many a late night visiting the cafeteria on second floor. I would gaze wistfully down the dimly-lit corridor to the forbidden territory of the editors and writers who made up the editorial department.

Even then, I wished I was on the input, rather than output side of the newspaper business.

The newsroom was quiet at that time of day, but I was sure there was a desk there waiting for me.

The world has changed since then. At that time, we were still publishing both a morning and evening edition.

Those days are long gone, as are many of the papers that were in business then.

It is sad to see another piece of my past disappear, but I am glad the company has invested in the new press and production facility. This tells me the proud tradition of printed newspapers in the northland will continue well into the future, and that is very good news indeed.

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