The Power of the Press

WiseMan is taking a course this week on the power of the media in Berlin. They are visiting different media - newspaper, TV, radio - and understanding how the media shape how we see the world.

This evening was a visit to the Axel Springer printing plant on the outskirts of Berlin. For some reason, half the course had said they were not coming. I asked if I could tag along, and I could.

I had been there in about 2000, I was teaching a course in the print technology program and followed along with an excursion to the plant. There were lots of very technical questions asked on that visit, this one was more superficial.

But this time we got to watch the paper rolls getting changed. Wow - tip of the hat to technology here! The printing plant goes through about 200 rolls of newsprint a day, each weighing 1.5 tons and holding 16 kilometers of paper. The girl doing the tour said: everyone asks me how many pages of newspaper that is, but I just don't know. Duh, do the math. According to the DIN norm, the newspapers in question are printed in Nordic format, 570 mm × 400 mm. They are printed four-up, so the theoretical number of physical pages (consisting of 4 newspaper pages) would be:

  • 16 km = 16 000 meter = 1 600 000 cm = 16 000 000 mm
  • Divide by width of paper, which is 570 mm, giving 28 070 sheets
  • Times 4 for four-up is 112 280 sheets
  • Times 4 for four printed pages is 449 120 pages.
So even with a bit of garbage, it is churning out 400 000 pages per roll, or about 80 million newspapers printed and distributed every day. Not all of these are read, of course.

Anyway - the roll changer is a piece of mechanical beauty. There are three rolls at a station: one currently feeding the printing tower, one exchanger, and the next one in, ready to be pushed in by an unmanned robot. As the feeder gets down to about 30 cm, an alarm sounds and everything slowly cranks into place. The expiring roll descends, the paper slows down a bit, but doesn't stop. The replacement is raised, and begins to spin, getting faster until it gets up to the same speed. A belt pushes it gently down, and a special strip of tape lets the paper stick onto the expiring roll, which tears off and is swung out of the way. The new roll has taken over, and the left-over paper (now called a stick) is fetched by a robot container called a dog. The waiting roll now gets pushed in and mounted, and is ready to roll into place in another 20 minutes or so.

Just fantastic!

The speed of all the machines - the conveyor belts, the overhead rails carrying off newspaper bits off to intermediate storage or to inserters that can put up to 7 inserts into one main newspaper book or the packagers - all work at breakneck speed. When they foul up (as happened as we were at the inserter station) they have to dig a lot of screwed up paper from the machines before they can restart the process.

The scary thing is that there are almost no people here. Just a few guys making the plates, and a handful of printers fussing with the color on the printing towers. In all, the guide said, they only have 370 people working at the printing plant, most of them in logistics. Everything else is automatic. And still, the guide said that it costs over double the stand price just to produce a newspaper, which is why they have so much advertising. I would be interested in knowing if she is right, it seems strange for the costs to be so high.

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