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The days of the press plate are nearly gone

By David Kennard daily Herald - | Jul 9, 2014

I got a call from a reader the other day asking to purchase the plate used to print a page of the paper.

It’s a common request from people who want to give the plate as a gift or frame it for a wall decoration. Unfortunately, the plates used to print the paper are getting harder to find with the advances in technology.

A newspaper plate is a sheet of aluminum that contains the image of a newspaper page on it. Each page of the newspaper requires an individual aluminum plate. Each plate is a unique and lasting piece of the newspaper production process, which makes it collectible to some folks.

In the short, 24-hour lifecycle of a daily paper, the plate is a key part in the printing process.

Here’s how it works:

A reporter writes a story on a computer and passes it on to an editor, who in turn gives it to a designer. The designer brings the story into a design program with other news stories, photos and ads scheduled to run. The designer fits all the puzzle pieces together, quickly creating the image of a newspaper page.

After each virtual page of the paper is created, it is sent to a typesetter, which in Ben Franklin’s day used to be a person. Today it’s a Volkswagen-sized machine resembling an oversized laser printer. This machine takes the virtual page and burns the image into a sheet of aluminum the same size as the printed page of your newspaper. Actually, it burns the image into a photo sensitive emulsion, but it appears to have actually engraved the news page into the aluminum plate.

The plate is then wrapped around a large roller on one unit of the printing press, which has multiple units all with their own rollers and plates required to print a section of the paper. When the pressman pushes the button the rollers with the plates attached begin turning, picking up ink where the image was burned and transferring to a sheet of newsprint.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but essentially that’s how a paper is made.

Changes in technology, however, have rendered the plate almost unnecessary, making that part of the paper production cycle as outdated as the Linotype machine. We still use plates, but the image burned into them is nearly invisible to the naked eye.

If you hung one on your wall, your guests would wonder why you framed a sheet of aluminum.

Some newspapers around the world have already found ways to eliminate the plate-making process altogether, allowing editors to hit the print button on the computer just like you’d print a document on your laser printer at your home or office. The difference is that in the newspaper industry, we’re printing thousands of copies on a laser printer as big as an apartment complex.

The Daily Herald, which used to be printed here in Provo, is now printed at a large print facility in West Valley City on the same printer used by the Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune and several other publications.

But even with the changes, it’s still an amazing process. And speaking of changes, does anyone remember when it was cool to have a darkroom in your basement?


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