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The Advocate's Secret Weapon: A Speedy Press

The Advocate

It's sort of a fluke.

The Baton Rouge paper had been nursing its 1950s era letterpresses for years when it finally had to bite the bullet and invest in a new production facility. The speedy offset press came online in 2006, just as the country headed into a recession and the newspaper industry was tanking.

So when John Georges closed the deal to buy The Advocate in May, it came with one of the newest printing presses in the country.

The Advocate

Around 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, pressman Charles Varmall carves a half ton reel of fresh newsprint out of its thick brown paper wrapping.

Ever so carefully, he stretches a strip of tape along the width of the reel and runs his hand across the newsprint that will be threaded into The Advocate's printing press.

"Make sure it's perfect, no tears in it, no wrinkles, no big creases, it's gotta be real smooth to go in and paste out right," said Varmall.

To keep the press from running out of paper, the reel has to stick to the next one just perfectly spinning at highway speed.

The press can pump out 65,000 copies an hour. So it was no problem for The Advocateto add a New Orleans edition to the daily run, and still have every paper delivered by 6:30 a.m.

Dan Shea, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer says The Advocate's press is twice as fast as the 40-year-old presses at the New Orleans Times-Picayune -- where he worked for 19 years until last September.

When multimillionaire businessman John Georges was considering buying The Advocate, he asked Shea to check out the press.

"I've known John for 15 years. Our kids go to school together," Shea explained. "He needed someone to say, 'If I buy this paper, I don't need to go out and buy a press' And there's no question, I said, 'John, you should have no concerns about the production facilities."

Shea figures this press cost about $19 million to build and it'll last another 30 years.

"I would not want to own a newspaper that needed a press right now because the capital spending is impossible."

On Oct. 1 of last year -- the same day the Times-Picayune cut back to printing just three days a week -- the Baton Rouge paper started printing its New Orleans edition.

The problem, says Shea: "After a while people realized, this is not a New Orleans paper: there are New Orleans stories on the front page and the metro page, but there are Baton Rouge obituaries, Baton Rouge editorials, Baton Rouge social coverage, Baton Rouge prep sports coverage..."

Picking up a copy of the New Orleans Advocate-- literally hot off the press -- Shea points to the growing number of New Orleans bylines as The Advocate has plucked reporters from the Picayune's former staff.

Newspapers are flying overhead on a conveyor down into the bundler and on to the insertion machines that will stuff in the ads and pre-printed sections.

The New Orleans edition ships out first, because it has the farthest to travel to its destination. Then Acadiana. Baton Rouge is last. But Shea wants to rejigger that to give the Crescent City newsroom a later deadline.

"If the Hornets game runs into overtime -- I should say the Pelicans -- we want to get it in the paper."

Shea says because of its ultra-modern production facility, The Advocate can put out a unique paper for New Orleans without taking anything away from hometown readers in Baton Rouge.

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Amy Jeffries
Amy started her career in public radio at WNPR in Hartford, CT more than a decade ago. NPR flew her in to Baton Rouge to help WRKF cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while she was still based in the North. Here she found her journalistic calling.

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