The news Tuesday evening that the San Diego Union-Tribune would lay off 178 of it 603 employees – most of whom worked to print and deliver the paper — was disappointing to those of us who value local journalism and the people who work behind the scenes to bring it to readers. That such a large chunk would be cut in the interest of “synergies” was expected as the Union-Tribune’s printing press operations were consolidated to Los Angeles following the paper’s sale to the Tribune Publishing Co.

What I didn’t expect was that the shuttering of the pressroom would jog a long-forgotten memory from my youth. The Union-Tribune used to host high school journalists for an annual tour of its operations. You had to be nominated to go; my journalism adviser at El Capitan High School nominated me one year, and as the only student remotely interested in the trip, I nominated myself the next.

It was an awe-inspiring experience for a nerdy young journalist. The newsrooms were noisy and bustling, the professional editors who spoke to us were just the right amount of grizzled and grumbly, and the fancy cafeteria where we were treated to lunch might as well been the seventh-floor restaurant of Bergdorf Goodman. But the really impressive leg of the tour was the pressroom – the machinery was massive, deafeningly loud and filthy with the black soot of newspaper ink.

I remember one of our hosts warning us not to stand too close to the giant spools of virgin newsprint, lest we be consumed and crushed when it whirred into action.

It was such a real, tangible visual of a newspaper coming to life, of stories being pressed into paper, an indelible record of human events.

I don’t know that local high school students today could be swept up in the romance of print journalism in quite the same way. We all hear that paper is dead, that the next generation will only consume their media electronically.

All the same, I’m sad to see this relic of journalism’s past dwindle amid consolidations. Sure, there will still be local printing shops that handle jobs ranging from magazines to coupon booklets to neighborhood weeklies. But how likely is it that San Diego will ever resurrect a major daily with its own large-scale printing press, where editors can run in with a last-minute change on deadline, shouting, “Stop the presses!”

I’m afraid the ink has already dried.

Jennifer McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance journalist.

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