Checking In

The Way We Print Now

Matt Mazar oversees one of the two offset press shifts at the Quad printing facility in Hartford, Wisconsin

We tend to mostly focus on the work of writers and editors at The Fine Print. We know how their days are structured, the frustrations and elations they experience, and the dramatic situations in which they sometimes find themselves. But there’s all sorts of other work that goes on in media. There are job titles that evoke vague fantasies or sometimes total incomprehension. So, following Studs Terkel’s 1974 oral history classic Working, we decided to ask the holders of some of these jobs what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.

When he’s on the day shift, Matt Mazar wakes up at 4:30 a.m. He drives his ink-stained truck about 25 minutes into Hartford, Wisconsin. “I hit the gym for about an hour before work and that gives me enough energy to put in the 12-hour shifts in the pressroom,” he told The Fine Print. Mazar is an offset press lead at the Hartford Quad plant where he leads a roughly four-person crew in printing hebdomadal magazines like The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. He puts on a Quad blue uniform, goggles, and foam earplugs and gets to work.

“We’ll come into an already-running press, ideally,” Mazar said. “The first thing I do is a handoff from day shift to night shift or vice versa — night shift to day shift in my case right now — and then I have a huddle with my team to make sure that we’re all on the same page.” Every four months, the crews swap shifts. Adjusting to a new sleep schedule didn’t used to be so hard on Mazar. “I just turned 50 this year, so it takes about a week or two now, sometimes longer,” he said. “It’s easier on the younger people I think.”

Mazar was an artistic kid, basically straight out of high school, when he started at Quad in 1991. “My intention was to someday maybe work for Disney because I could draw pretty well and reproduce their characters. That was a far reach. I was more or less aligned to go to Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and things kind of fell through,” he said. His uncle was a long-time Quad employee and gave him a tour. “I saw how it went hand in hand with color theory and things like that that I was pretty well versed in,” he recalled. “I became really attached to it and then eventually joined the ranks.”

Flipping through magazine pages is part of Mazar’s job. “I have to pull quality, on an average, every 30,000 on one of the high-speed, long-run presses. At that time, I have to look through every single page of the printed book that we’re doing and check for defects,” he said. Those can be things like too much or too little ink on a page, but it can also be some basic copyediting. “Believe it or not, once in a while, we’ll find errors in the print itself coming from the customer. It could be typos, it could be potential misinformation, like if there’s a product in a magazine that’s selling something and it has the wrong product name underneath it,” he said. “Then we can shut the press down and get that corrected.”

Sometimes he looks through magazines outside of work too, but he can’t name a favorite. “I don’t necessarily read them as much anymore,” he said. “I think everything is easier to flip through on your cell phone now than in a magazine, which is kind of counterproductive to my job because we rely on the paper and the actual printed product. But I think people still want the look and feel of magazines. Magazines don’t have batteries.”

Mazar works a grueling day, but he’s never bored. “It’s a continuous process, so I’m always engaged in the job. I don’t find the time to be bored, that would make it a long day,” he said, though he later adds, “I don’t know if anyone really enjoys work.” Although the printing plant is cooled, in the summer the heat of the press can get oppressive. “The hardest part would be if we have to actually do maintenance on the press. That’s when we’re getting in there and getting real dirty,” he said. “It’s a big, huge working piece of equipment. Yesterday, it ran pretty good, but there’s a lot of components — it’s not just the press itself. It’s the splicers with the paper, there’s the stackers where the books go to, there’s little things here and there. Generally, maybe once or twice a week, I’ll have to call maintenance out.”

He takes the teaching part of being a team leader seriously. “It’s my responsibility as a lead to make sure everyone underneath me can someday take over my job,” he said. That goes for everyone from the roll tender, who makes sure that the paper going into the press is quality and cleanly spliced, to the material handler, who makes sure the printed pages make it to a pallet or skid and move over to inventory. “Back when I started, it was generally a six-person crew all the time,” Mazar noted. “Now with innovations and technology changes, we’ve actually been able to reduce crew sizes without really affecting too much of the output by personnel.” His favorite part of the job is running the press at optimal speed. “I like running fast,” he said, “when I can achieve the fastest speed possible out of the press.”

At the end of the shift, Mazar and his crew get the press ready for the night crew. “We clean up the area because printing is not a clean process,” he said. Then they clean themselves up, making sure that they’re not tracking the extremely runny ink anywhere. “If we have to, we can change in the locker room,” he said. “There are a lot of days where I don’t have to. I’ll just walk right to my truck and get in. I just pad off the paper dust and whatnot. As long as my hands and arms are clean, I’m good to go. I’ll take a shower at home.”

The printers work on a rotating schedule: three days on, three days off, with the occasional overtime day. The length of their shift means that on the days they’re working there isn’t room for much else. After work, Mazar sticks to the necessities. “Sometimes my wife will have dinner ready for me. She knows my work schedule and how hard I work,” he said. “Sometimes I just relax — we have two dogs — and I mentally prepare for the next day. Twelve hours — I’ve adapted to it over the years, but still, it’s one of those shifts where you really don’t have much time before you get to sleep and then start your day again.”