The Recorder – A brief history of the newspaper printing operation in Northampton

Editor’s note: The Greenfield Recorder has roots dating back to 1792, when William Coleman, Greenfield’s first barrister, decided to publish a journal of current affairs and thought in the years after the birth of the nation. Coleman convinced Thomas Dickman, a journeyman printer, to come from Worcester at age 23 to become editor of the new Impartial Intelligencer, as he was originally named. The first edition was printed in Greenfield on a press that had been used by Dickman to print Bibles for his former employer, Isaiah Thomas in Worcester. The new publisher printed its first edition on a Wednesday this year. For the next 200 years the recorder was printed in Greenfield until, at the turn of the present century, the press operations were transferred to Northampton under the ownership of Newspapers of New England. Similarly, The Athol Daily News, founded in 1934, was printed in Athol until a few years ago. Earlier this week, after running continuously for nearly 235 years, Northampton Press printed its final print run. Future publications of the Recorder, Daily News and Gazette, as well as the weekly Amherst Bulletin, will be made at a Gannett Co. Inc. press in Auburn.

What follows is a tribute to the local press and dedicated operators who have printed the paper for over two centuries — come what may.

In 1786 parts of western Massachusetts were in the grip of what came to be known as the Shays Rebellion, the uprising of farmers and other rural citizens against what they saw as unjust taxes and money-lending practices, all dictated by wealthy merchants and state officials who farmers say ignored their pleas for help.

Gangs of gunmen, which included Revolutionary War veterans like Daniel Shays of Pelham, responded by surrounding courthouses in towns across the region to prevent hearings against people facing the loss of their land and property due to unpaid debts.

In Northampton, for example, shopkeepers, clergymen and other men of integrity “in the prime of life”, as the Daily Hampshire Gazette put it in a special edition of 1886, wanted a way to speak to other members of the community against these “insurrections”. “They invited a young printer from Connecticut, William Butler, to come up north and start a newspaper in town.

On September 6, 1786, the 22-year-old Butler did just that, producing a four-page Hampshire Gazette which was essentially an anti-Shays newspaper, hand-printed in a house on the corner of Main and Pleasant streets “a few stems east of the courthouse,” as the newspaper’s bear stated. It was the first edition of a newspaper which for 234 years has always – until now – been printed in Northampton .

Over the years, the newspaper changed in style, size, news content and name, went from a weekly to a daily, and was produced in a number of buildings and facilities, primarily downtown. It used a variety of presses during this time, from manual wooden machines, to early versions of mechanized steam-driven presses, to the current 32-unit Cerutti S-4 press (known as the flexographic model), which can print multiple color pages and has also been used in commercial printing jobs.

According to a number of sources, including an 1886 special centennial issue of the Gazette, Butler first printed the paper in a borrowed room from resident Benjamin Prescott’s home. Shortly thereafter he erected his own building on the “north-east corner” of Pleasant Street in Northampton, printing the weekly Gazette on the second floor; William’s brother, Daniel, ran a variety store on the first floor.

Barbara Blumenthal, bookbinder and former rare book archivist at Smith College, says William Butler did a lot of other print work – posters, advertisements, books – and his family played an important role in the early business of Northampton edition. “His cousin Simeon Butler was a bookbinder and he opened a bookshop and bookbinding in 1792,” she said. Simeon was also a book publisher, as was one of his sons, Jonathan Hunt Butler, notes Blumenthal.

William Butler, who also built a mill in what is now the Bay State section of town to produce raw paper for the press, published the paper for nearly 30 years, with apprentices often handling the impression. The 1886 Gazette called Butler’s version of the article “solid and substantial”. It didn’t lose any space in light reading. There wasn’t much local news either; the focus was on foreign and domestic news.

A Gazette from early September 1804, for example, contained information on Napoleon Bonaparte’s travels in France and on the Franco-English conflict in Europe, as well as smaller reports from South Carolina and Connecticut on, respectively, a murder and a fallen drunk man dismounted from his horse. Local news was limited to items such as small business advertisements, classifieds and a notice about a stray cow in Easthampton.

Butler sold the Gazette in 1815 to the first of a succession of publishers and owners, including a law firm, which between then and the 1850s moved the office and printing operations to various downtown locations. Until the early 1840s it continued to be printed on hand presses, but a second-hand “motor press” was introduced in 1841 and a steam press in 1853, increasing the size and output of the newspaper.

Other significant changes came in the late 1850s, when the Gazette merged with another newspaper, the Northampton Courier, published by James Trumbull. Trumbull and then Gazette editor Henry S. Gere became long-term partners in the business, and also began to place much greater emphasis on local news.

As the late Northampton journalist and historian Richard C. Garvey wrote in “The Northampton Book”, a 1954 history of the town, the increased local coverage of the Gazette caused locals to “scrutinize avidly the columns to see their own names printed”.

At the end of the Civil War, the Gazette moved from an office on Main Street to what Garvey described as “an old school building” on Gothic Street – and the once somewhat itinerant paper will remain there until 1927. After some unsuccessful attempts to convert the weekly from a daily, the Gazette at the end of 1890, then published only by Henry Gere, became a daily for good.

The “modern era”

The 20th century saw the introduction of larger and more powerful presses and the expansion of the size and circulation of the Gazette, with a corresponding increase in the number of copies of the newspaper that could be printed – from less than 5,000 per hour at up to 50,000 per hour in recent years.

Presses in the early part of the 20th century used “hot type”, in which typesetters created lines of text by injecting molten lead into letter-shaped molds; the text was then laid out on thick plates which were used to print on rolls of newsprint. Jim O’Connor of Northampton, a longtime Gazette press operator and foreman who retired in 2008, recalls working on one of the newspaper’s last presses to use this method, in the early 1960s.

“You always got burned at some point,” he said. “I still have scars.”

According to a 1948 Gazette article, the newspaper had such a press, weighing 40 tons, which appeared when the newspaper moved in 1927 to a building on Armory Street. Two years later, ownership of the paper changed again when Harriet Williams DeRose, the Gazette’s former business manager, bought the paper from the Gere family; she became one of the country’s first female newspaper publishers. Three generations of the DeRose family published the Gazette until the current owner, Newspapers of New England, bought the newspaper in 2005.

Harriet DeRose oversaw the installation of another press, the 45,000 ton Hoe Simplex model, in 1948, the last of the “hot type” units. In 1966 the Gazette replaced this with a Goss Urbanite offset press, giving the paper the ability to print in color – Western Mass’s first daily newspaper. to do it.

At the end of 1975 the Gazette moved to its current home in Conz Street, taking the offset press with it. As former Gazette publisher and editor Jim Foudy noted in 2007, the Goss press, while still usable, was showing its age, leading to the installation of the Cerutti S-4 press, a large Italian design which, combined with an expansion of the Conz Press Street building to house it, cost the Gazette over $10 million (the Gazette was the first American newspaper to install the Cerutti model).

The new press provided better print quality for the Gazette and its sister publications, including the Greenfield Recorder and Amherst Bulletin, Foudy says, and it was also initially used for many outdoor printing projects. Current publisher Michael Moses claims that the Cerutti S-4, until 2015, printed up to 85 commercial jobs per month. But most of that business has now dried up, Moses says, due to both the pandemic and the rising costs associated with flexographic presses.

In an email, Foudy said he was saddened by the Gazette’s decision to outsource its printing, both because of the job losses it entails and because of the sense he thinks a internal press brings to a local newspaper, in particular.

“The press is a large and loud physical manifestation of the power the newspaper has to deliver information to mass audiences and keep people informed about their community, their nation and the world,” he said. “The news media serve as a watchdog for public agencies. In places where there are no news media – so-called news deserts – fraud and corruption flourish and scoundrels thrive.

And John Raymer of Belchertown, former head of the Gazette’s newsroom, says the newspaper business looks radically different from when it was part of it in the 1960s.

“All the newspapers I worked for were family businesses that did their own printing,” said Raymer, who retired a few years ago after 30 years at the Gazette. “It’s just a very different time now – a different world.”

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]