A look inside the largest newspaper press in the world based in Broxbourne
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 March 2020
The presses that rolled under Fleet Street are silent, replaced by the likes of Broxbourne’s mega newsprinting site – the biggest in the world. We go inside to see the ‘nightly miracle’.
It's a little-known fact that Broxbourne is home to the largest newspaper printing plant in the world, where the majority of the UK's national newspapers are printed.
The sprawling 40-acre site is part of a £650m investment which saw Newsprinters establish 19 presses at three UK plants - 12 in Broxbourne, five in Liverpool's Knowsley and two in Glasgow.
Situated just off the A10 and a stone's throw from the M25, planning permission for the Broxbourne plant was granted in 2005 and took two years to build, going into full production in May 2008. Now 3.35m daily newspapers are printed at the site every weekday, and that's not to mention weekend papers, supplements and weekly titles.
All three sites are highly automated using state-of-the-art technology and, while the Broxbourne site has more than 350 employees, only a handful of skilled custodians are required to keep a watchful eye on the machinery, should anything go awry.
There are machines for pretty much everything. Every day there are 50 deliveries of blank paper shipped from all over the world, offering different grades and reel sizes, and from the moment the reels arrive, nobody touches them. Floor level conveyor tracks move the huge reels - which can measure up to 2.21 metres in diameter and weigh up to two tonnes - effortlessly to the storage area, before preparation machines unwrap their protective layer prior to the printing process. This uses plates to transfer the layout of digitally designed pages to the paper on vast machines. The whole process is one of rolling movement.
Once the newspapers have been printed, they are sorted into bundles, stacked on pallets and wrapped in cling film - again all by machine.
Commercial director Tracey Hart says, 'Because it's automated, if it runs well, there's nothing much for the team to do, apart from check the density of the ink and observe. Even when things go wrong, they are very calm.'
Everything is timed to the minute, so any delay, however short, can have far-reaching consequences. 'We contract every title to a time they must submit all their files by, but the flow of files is really important because we need to create the plates for printing,' Tracey explains. 'What we want to avoid is file bunching - when we receive 52 pages in the last three minutes, for instance - because then it's a horrific task.
'It's not like producing a tin of beans, we create a brand new product every day, and some editors sign off on pages at the last minute, but we still have to meet certain deadlines to get the newspapers to the retailers on time.'
She adds that things happen that the team can't account for. 'It's very much reactive and last minute - that's our world. We do have a really energised team who are very engaged because they know any slip of concentration is so impactful. The staff are passionate about what they do, and it's great to work in this print world and to be a part of it. When that story breaks, or when a problem happens, that's the excitement. The night of a general election is always a big buzz, and I remember the atmosphere when the story on Michael Jackson's death broke, as well as The Telegraph's exclusive on the MPs' expenses scandal. Today we don't know what tomorrow's front page is going to be and what will drive the news or delay the news.'
The tight deadlines, which leave very little room for error, have to be met 364 days of the year - pausing only for Christmas Eve - and staff refer to the challenge as 'the nightly miracle'. It's essential any problems are dealt with deftly because thousands of copies of newspapers are printed every minute. Newsprinters' customers get a minute by minute report - some with live access - and every morning an internal meeting is held to scrutinise the previous night's performance. Business improvement director Richard Johnstone explains, 'We get feedback on performance that the daytime staff analyse, so we are learning and improving day by day. With machines anything can happen and the night shift have to mitigate the impact of that. It's amazing how quickly the team can fix a problem with the presses, pulling out any debris and re-feeding the paper.'
But while time is of the essence, it's a balancing act between speed and accuracy. 'If you rush putting the plates on the press you could damage the plates or break the web (the paper).'
While the system is highly automated, skilled printers are essential for the operation to continually succeed, but a significant shift in emphasis from print to digital means printing is a dying art form and recruiting skilled staff is becoming increasingly difficult. 'We have an ageing workforce and a lack of a pool to go to for trained printers,' Tracey says. 'Young people are not interested, so to find a trained printer is quite hard.'
Newsprinters offers an apprenticeship scheme, hoping to entice youngsters into the industry and develop their skills in-house, but revival of interest on a wider scale would be preferential, Tracey admits.
The industry has seen declining print sales in the years since the Broxbourne plant was built, due to the explosion of digital news sources, but in that time Newsprinters' customer base has actually grown due to the unfortunate demise of smaller printing plants around the country. It also offers an end-to-end service, from printing to distribution, seizing every opportunity to maximise its service. 'We want to ensure we optimise everything we do and use, from ink to paper,' Tracey insists.
Even the biggest newspaper printing plant in the world is not without its problems. 'The Broxbourne site was built at the height of newspaper print sales,' explains Tracey. 'It was built for volume at speed, with triple width presses instead of the standard double width, so we can print a lot faster for the high pagination titles. What we are not so good at is varying trim (page) sizes or inserting supplements and leaflets. Customers want special bespoke things now and that's been a challenge for us.'
Another challenge for Newsprinters, and one Tracey says is being addressed, is finding ways to reduce its carbon emissions, minimise waste and increase its green credentials. She says a lot of work has been done to avoid the need to use a chemical solution to clean the blankets which go between the rollers to help ensure pressure is distributed evenly across the plates.
'We have to ensure we print the best quality we can, but we have now produced a water wash because we want to be kind to the environment. We've also substituted plastic poly bags with ones made from potato starch, and unsold newspapers are brought back and recycled.
'We also use aluminium cores for our paper reels, so when a reel ends the core goes back to the paper mill and is reloaded. Ultimately, we can't change the fact we use paper, but we must do as much as we can for the environment.'
This Hertfordshire printing plant, colossal in its size and capability and adapting to changing demands from clients, is still for now at the heart of the UK newspaper industry. When you open up tomorrow's newspaper, perhaps consider the 'nightly miracle' that took place to make it.