There ain't no app for that
It feels weird to write about this in a blog -- a purely digital format. Hell, the fact that I’m typing this on a computer makes me feel like a full-on techno-weenie. That’s because the subject of this little article, a guy named Dean Coombs, puts out a newspaper every week without the benefit of the internet, a computer or even a digital camera.
Coombs is the editor, publisher and janitor of the Saguache Crescent, the official paper of Saguache County, a sparsely populated land on the northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The entire publishing process is totally unsullied by the digital. The Crescent is, as far as I can tell, the last all letterpress newspaper in the nation.
I wandered through the streets of Saguache, population 500 or less, while driving through the frigid San Luis Valley. I’ve always liked the town and its cottonwood-lined streets, sheltered as it is from the valley’s harsh elements by low treeless hills. It was founded by Otto Mears, a Russian Jew who became known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans for his ambitious road and railroad building projects, back in 1867. The town originally served as a supply center for the mining camps in the San Juan Mountains.
The main drag is lined with old brick and wood buildings, at least half of which are empty or shut down. And near one end is the bright yellow facade of the Crescent. On a whim, I tried the door. It opened. Only old newspaper offices can produce the smell that came from within: A combination of hot lead, oil, metal on metal friction, dust and slowly decaying newsprint. Every flat surface, and even some that weren’t flat, were covered with piles of paper, old type, photos and various miscellany that looked as if it hadn’t been touched in decades. I heard a sort of repeating whooshing sound coming from the back -- the only indication that the office was occupied.
Coombs, a kind of gnomish-looking guy with grey beard, round metal-rimmed spectacles and a bit of a stoop, was printing the weekly edition. He fed each sheet of newsprint onto the press. The paper was inked, and then a multi-pronged sort of fork grabbed the printed page and slapped it on a flat slat of wood.
Each week, Coombs types out the weekly news on a 90-year-old Linotype, which kicks out hot lead type by the line, or slug. Coombs then arranges the slugs, graphics and ads -- everything’s backwards so that it prints forward, if that makes sense -- in the galley. The galley is then secured onto the press, which inks the galley and the ink is pressed onto the paper. Another big machine folds the paper; another ancient contraption puts on the postage labels.
Since 1979 Coombs has been doing it this way. Before that, his father did it in the same office, and before that his grandfather. The Crescent has been printed in much the same way for 134 years (though back in the early days they didn't even have the benefit of the Linotype, they had to set each letter by hand). With all this machinery to deal with, editors like Coombs must be mechanics as much as journalists. (“We don’t do much journalism around here,” said Coombs.)
“How’s Saguache doing?” I asked Coombs, when he turned off his press to see what the hell I was doing there.
“Well, we’ve got big dreams,” he said. “And a million-dollar main street!” Despite the apparent lack of commerce going on in the “downtown,” the town had managed to put in new sidewalks, nice streetlights, roundabouts and even a little pocket park. It all looked nice, but a bit out of place. The pressman had plenty to say about that.
Saguache has always struck me as the kind of town that is both on the verge of becoming something big, and on the brink of perishing altogether. In recent years it has attracted a few artists, who have turned some of the empty buildings into studios and galleries. It’s located perfectly for recreation, with the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos nearby, along with Penitente Canyon climbing area and plenty of Forest Service land. Yet it’s never quite lived up to what it could be.
Coombs and I chatted about small-town politics and the ins and outs of running a community newspaper -- I owned and ran another historic publication over in Silverton for several years. Even with the benefit of computers, digital cameras and the ability to email the digital copy of the paper to the printer 60 miles away, it was backbreaking work. Coombs is to be admired.
The front page of the Crescent's first edition of 2013 has a letter to the editor about aquifer levels in the valley running low, a reminder from the town about the best way to maintain the new sidewalks and, of course, the new dates for the knitting club. Aside from an article about the yoga studio, the entire paper could have come from decades ago. It was comforting, and I wanted to stay in the office and keep chatting, lulled by the rhythmic flapping of the press. But I had places to go.
I walked outside, took a photo of the Crescent’s facade with my iPhone, and posted it on Facebook. I had returned to the virtual world.
Photos (all by the author) from top: The printer's table in the Crescent, with a galley on it ready to be loaded on the press; The Crescent's newly-painted facade; Coombs at the press, printing the Jan. 10, 2013, issue; The Linotype, the 1920s version of a laptop.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. He loves stumbling upon great stories in the West. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.