After 27 years, American pressman steps down from full-time work

ELLSWORTH — Producing a newspaper every week is a group effort that takes reporters, editors, page designers and ad representatives working together.

But at The Ellsworth American, it would all be for naught without members of the production team, who work with ink-stained hands as they tinker and massage massive press machines into churning out thousands of well-printed papers.

After 27 years of full-time work, Roger Hoffmann, The American’s lead pressman, will now be working part time for the paper.

“When Mr. Baker interviewed me for the job, I said I wanted something that was steady, that was going to be around for a while,” Hoffmann recalled about his first interview with the paper’s publisher, Alan Baker. “And I got it.”

Before he started working here, Hoffmann worked as a grocery store manager at the former IGA on High Street. Before that, the New Jersey native worked on a shipboard guided missile system in the Navy.

Sorting produce or guiding missiles is very different from managing a printing press, but Baker wasn’t worried about Hoffmann’s mechanical aptitude.

“He was an expert bicycle repairman, so he already had exhibited mechanical skills,” the publisher said. “To go from there [the grocery store] to being lead pressman is a bit of a stretch, but he accomplished it.”

Hoffmann started out with stacking freshly printed newspapers, but he soon got the hang of press work by learning from the former production manager, DeWayne Larsen, who retired in 2016.

Running the press is no easy task. When the machine is operating, blank paper runs at high speed through rollers that press ink onto the paper. The ink is guided onto the page by a plate that acts a bit like a stencil, except these stencils convey all of the week’s news and advertisements.

If the plates are not aligned correctly, or if the rolls of paper are too tense, the ink on the newspaper will look misaligned, which will render the pictures and advertisements unrecognizable.

To avoid that outcome, the production team makes small adjustments to the plates, the ink and the paper tension as the loud press machine churns out dozens of papers a minute.

“You can move the plates up and down and side to side,” said Matt Martin, the production manager at The Ellsworth American. “We’re only talking a quarter of an inch at most of movement, because if you’re off one-sixty-fourth of an inch, you can notice it.”

Paper and ink cost money, so mistakes in production can be expensive. Follow Hoffmann around during a press run, and you’ll see him constantly picking papers up off the press, opening them up, frowning, shaking his head, and tossing them into a waste bin before returning to the press to adjust something or other.

“He wants everything perfect,” Martin said. “And he has to do it quickly, because when that [press] is running, that’s money.”

Martin said Hoffmann and his team often have to print over a thousand copies of a paper before they get the alignment exactly right. The challenge has only grown in recent years, as advertisement layouts have become increasingly complicated.

“A lot of it is younger people who are designing these things,” Martin said, “and they probably have never even held a newspaper, let alone tried to design an ad that could be effectively printed.”

The complicated designs highlight the need for experienced hands like Hoffmann. After working with the machine so long, the 70-year-old is something of a press whisperer.

“One day Roger told me a shaft on the press was going to break, and it broke the next day,” Martin said. “I couldn’t believe it. That’s how in tune he is with the workings of it.”

“That’s all stuff in his head that we have to somehow get out of there,” Martin continued. “It’s not something that can be learned in a short amount of time.”

Hoffmann is not a big talker, so it could be a challenge to get him to quickly share his insight with younger workers. To make matters more difficult, there are fewer opportunities for younger pressmen to practice these days.

Hoffmann pulled out a list of publications that The Ellsworth American used to print back in the 1990s, when he started working there.

The list included newspapers for local schools such as Husson University, Bangor High School, the Surry School and Hermon High School.

“We don’t do any of these anymore, they’re all gone,” said Hoffmann, who bikes to work from his home in Surry during the warmer months.

“I used to have to work until 4 or 5 o’clock 20-some years ago,” he continued, “and now we’re getting out at 2.”

Despite the challenges, Hoffmann will still work part time for a while, to the great relief of his manager.

“We’re beyond thrilled he’s going to come in and help us out,” Martin said. “I think he’s irreplaceable.”

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.