The last days of Boston as an industrial town: The Boston Globe printing press stops

In 1812, Francis Cabot Lowell arrived in Waltham after sneaking around a few British textile factories where he memorized the plans and machinations of the power loom. The Boston Manufacturing Company, founded on the banks of the Charles using Lowell’s stolen plans, essentially kicked off the Industrial Revolution in America — although Moses Brown had done something similar, yet not as successful, in Pawtucket before Lowell.

This led to the evolution of New England from an agrarian culture to an industry-based one, forever changing the economic machinations of the then still burgeoning United States.

This month, The Boston Globe is officially moving from its longtime home on Morrissey Boulevard, on the border of South Boston and Dorchester, to a new headquarters downtown.

As part of the transition, the Globe is shifting its massive printing operations — it also prints the Boston Herald, ironically, as well as The New York Times, and other smaller regional papers — to a new facility in the outer suburbs.

And so, the massive Globe printing press will be doing its final run of newspapers very soon.

If you’ve never been to the Globe, you might not know how colossal — it’s greater than a football field in length — the printing press is. It is the most dominant feature in the building; not only can you see it in action along the multiple southern-facing glass windows that allow onlookers to see the press in action, you can feel its vibrations throughout the entire Globe headquarters. According to newsroom folklore, on the rare occasions when someone literally needed to “stop the presses,” the action could be felt throughout the entirety of the sprawling Globe facility.

The best way to explain the press is that it is a multi-story mass of ink-oozing metal that looks like something that has been plucked from the steel factories of Pennsylvania and dumped at the edge of Dorchester Bay. Painted yellow, it also looks like the love child of the old Boston Garden and the Bethlehem Steel plant.

The Globe printing press is the last vestige of a manufacturing age that started in the Boston suburb of Waltham, transitioned to Lowell, and eventually moved west to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and the rest of what is now known as the Rust Belt. The manufacturing of small components has had a bit of a renaissance in Boston recently with Autodesk’s move to the Seaport, the rise of Ben Einstein’s Bolt, the recent launch of Desktop Metal’s new metal printing products, and the many other small-scale manufacturing operations that rely heavily on 3D printing and outsourcing of production. However, business machinery on a large scale is almost completely absent in modern Boston — Gillette’s Boston factory is likely the last vestige of old school assembly line work in the city proper.

The Globe’s printing press is something wholly anachronistic. It seems completely out of place in the city. The workers who operate and fix the machinery, who often have to go inside the machine to fix ink problems and solve paper jams, seem like something out of a Dickens novel once they exit the press safely after performing their tasks, covered head to toe in ink.

And so, the last day of the Globe’s printing press will also be one of the last times a massive piece of machinery will operate in Boston. The line from Lowell to modern Boston will be cut. And while Boston has gone through various stages of economic strength — currently Biotech and hard technologies are winning the day — a golden era for Massachusetts is officially closing.

Personally, it’s sad to see the Globe printing press go. The first time I went to the Globe, for a Scott Kirsner talk when I was transitioning from being a teacher to a tech journalist, I walked along the massive structure, as it hummed along, for probably a half hour, awe-struck.

On my first day as a writer for the Globe, before I made my way to HR and found out where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do, I sat on one of the window sills that allowed you to look into the printing plant and stood in disbelief that at some point soon, my own words would be cycling through the machine.

I conducted some of my more intense interviews in the quiet, secluded hallway adjacent to the printing press (I also have a bit of an aversion to the style of some of the Globe’s journalists who carried out loud, uncomfortable, and, dare I say, somewhat showy interviews in the close quarters of the massive editorial floor). When I needed some respite from a non-stop writing session or to beat a bout of writer’s block, watching the press in action was the balm. I even got the offer for what I thought would be a career-defining job as I sat on the window overlooking the plant. When my kids came to visit work, it was a must-visit.

On my last day of working for the Globe, the printing press was the last place I said goodbye to the Boston Globe; it was a far more emotional experience than I expected. It is a shame that it won’t run much longer.

While the end of this era will be especially difficult for those whose livelihoods are tied to the former manufacturing structures, there are tremendous opportunities for those willing to learn new skills and take a chance working in upward-trending industries like biotech and for companies like Desktop Metal, Formlabs, and Rethink Robotics.

An excellent look at the next generation of Massachusetts manufacturing can be found in a recent Globe feature by Scott Kirsner: “The factory of the future is here, and it’s digitized.”

Likely, you won’t be reading the piece on some of the paper that has gone through the printing press.

If you want to watch a great short film on the printing plant, watch this excellent video that Globe recently produced.

Dennis Keohane is the founder of Utterly Biased, a newsletter telling the real stories behind Boston’s tech, startup, and innovation news. Click here to subscribe.

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