What is the margin of the newspaper sheet — with its serrations and occasional holes (functional?) — called? I came up with the word “selvage,” but that may not have made its way from the fabric store to the print shop. Is there a term that Ben Franklin would have used?
— David Chalkley, Manassas, Va.
While “selvage” is a pretty word — it means an edge of fabric finished to prevent fraying — it is not employed here at The Washington Post to refer to the serrations at the top and bottom of a page.
We just call it the margin, said Hugh Price, director of operations planning at the paper.
But, oh, what ingenuity and technology goes into the printed paper. Modern newspaper presses are big, complex machines. They are called web presses. Here, “the web” does not refer to an ethereal collection of zeroes and ones living in the cloud, but to something physical: a continuous sheet of newsprint that rolls through the presses.
Those holes are functional. The printed paper is pulled over a board that makes the first fold, along the newspaper’s spine. Then comes the folding cylinder. A row of pins grabs the newsprint and pulls it around the cylinder, leaving holes (typically seven). A split second later, a knife cylinder makes one horizontal cut, then another, creating a single paper.
Each paper is pushed through what are called the second fold rollers. Those make the horizontal fold in the center of the paper. (This is the fold ambitious reporters want their stories above.)
The Post goes through about 900 rolls of newsprint a week. Each weighs a ton. You may have occasionally encountered something a little odd in your newspaper: a piece of wavy-edged newsprint that overlaps a blank sheet, or a thick piece of newsprint glued atop another.
These are artifacts created when one massive roll of newsprint runs out and another starts up. As one spinning roll approaches empty, a full one starts spinning. To match the proper speed, a camera reads a strip of black tape, like a timing light pointed at a car engine. At the correct rpm, a brush assembly swings down to glue the beginning of the new roll to the end of the old roll.
A few papers will have this point of adhesion. They are called “pasters.” Answer Man thinks they are lucky. If you get a paster, make a wish.
Other bits of arcana: The thin gray bar at the bottom of section fronts helps press operators ensure that color images have the correct density of ink. In the center at the bottom are four color dots: yellow, magenta, cyan, black. Those once helped ensure that the parts of a color image were aligned properly, or registered. But those dots now are just a quick way to eyeball that the color plates are installed in the correct order. Registration is now handled automatically by a camera that scrutinizes a vertical set of very tiny dots to the left of the bigger dots.
What else? Tiny letters at the top right of the front page reveal information. V1 through V4 tell on which of the four presses in The Post’s Springfield, Va., facility that paper was printed. Sometimes you will see section fronts with MD, DC or VA in the upper right. This is which area the section is for, with stories or ads tailored for that place. (EZ means “every zone.”)
The paper’s three editions start with RE, for “regional.” The newsroom typesets its last story for that edition at 9:30 p.m. The presses are running by 9:45, and nine minutes after that, the first copies are complete. The RE comprises about 40,000 copies, which go to outlying cities such as New York and Richmond.
Subsequent editions are the SU, for “suburban” (it closes at 11:30), and M2, for “metro,” the final edition, which closes around 12:45 a.m., later if there is a game on the West Coast.
Ben Franklin would also have called the blank space around the print the margin, said David Wilson, a journeyman printer at Colonial Williamsburg. He said 18th-century newspapers would have had holes, too, not at the bottom of a sheet but in the center. The holes came from little pins that held the sheet of paper in place above the inked type, keeping it from falling.
Answer Man imagines a modern web press would have made Franklin salivate. The World Wide Web would have blown his mind.
Stop the presses! Have you donated to The Washington Post Helping Hand charities? Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Community of Hope and Homestretch each work with homeless families or teens, getting them out of shelters, into stable homes and onto the path of self-sufficiency.
For more information, and to donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.