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After dark, from keystrokes to doorsteps

Posted: September 4, 2010 8:07 p.m.
Updated: September 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Cresencio Santillan takes a closer look at the ink tones on the first test prints of a recent edition of The Signal at around midnight in the newspaper’s press room.

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Editor’s note: The final in an occasional series on the people who keep the SCV humming while the rest of us are snoring.

By Melissa Gasca
Signal Staff Writer

Car salesmen had retired for the evening, leaving Valencia’s auto row still and quiet.

Late-night drivers occasionally rolled down Creekside Road, passing The Signal’s darkened offices. 

Computers had shut down inside. The day’s deadlines for journalists and editors had long since passed.

It was about midnight, and Saugus resident Abel Uballe pulled into The Signal’s unlit parking lot and headed into the packing warehouse. Every night, he folds about 600 newspapers. Then he piles them into his passenger seat and hits his delivery trail.

Folding typically takes one hour. The delivery lasts four.

“I don’t mind. I listen to the radio and spend time thinking,” said Uballe, as he slid newspapers into plastic sleeves early Friday morning.

As he pressed and stuffed, a loud humming noise spilled over from the press room next door. Supervisor Paz Perez and his crew wore ear plugs. The printing press — a rumbling blue beast of a machine, the size of a small train — was fast at work, spewing out hundreds of papers per minute.

Two hours later, 12,000 papers would be loaded into vehicles and delivered to doorsteps and newsstands.

Taming the blue beast
About 2,000 newspapers never make it out to the public each day. Their pinkish pages, offset graphics or faded lettering land them in the recycle bin.

Just past midnight, the blue beast begins to roll rapidly — its initial roar similar to the sound of an airplane takeoff.

Perez and his crew spend the first 10 minutes frantically switching color levers, lubricating pulleys and making sure the massive machine’s three webs are running efficiently.

Perfection may be too ideal, but that is the goal. Perez and the others pull out a new paper from the stack every few seconds, flipping through each page and scanning for detail.

“When I see the good copies, I feel relief,” Perez said.

But that doesn’t mean Perez and his crew can sit back and relax.

There are a number of press-machine hiccups that can stall the roughly two-hour process: paper jams, altered ink levels, stuck pulleys.

“We are working against time and against waste,” Perez said. “I need to take care of the quality of the paper, try to finish on time, try not to waste too much paper and work safely.”

The press can catch fingers at any time, Perez said. A giant “Safety First” banner hangs from the center of the blue beast.

Perez has worked the Signal’s graveyard press shift for the last 18 years. Some of the guys on the press have up to 30 years of press-machine experience.

A few nights a month, the press crew is challenged to produce 50,000 copies.

The race against time and error runs high, but to Perez, it’s all the same.

“We got that pressure every (night),” Perez said.

Night-shift preferences
As copies stack up, they are delivered to the sorters in the neighboring warehouse. That is where Estella Martinez spends four nights a week filing inserts or special sections into newspapers.

A few workers have machines to sort coupons and special sections, but what cannot be sorted by technology is hand-filed by several others alongside Martinez.

She rubs her ink-stained fingers in SortKwik to moisten her finger tips. Then she becomes focused, rapidly filing and stacking.

“We get it done and then talk,” she said.

She’s fast, but not as quick as some of the others around her.

“The girl on the corner, she’s the fastest,” Martinez said. “When we do packages, she’s always the one that has more — that’s how you can tell she’s the fastest.”

Martinez, of Sylmar, said she has grown accustomed to her 9-p.m.-to-2-a.m. shift. It’s the best way for her to spend time with her kids during the day.

Uballe has worked a late shift most of his life. A career as a grocery warehouse teamster demanded a 3-p.m.-to-midnight shift for 30 years before he retired from the field.

“For me, staying up like this is nothing,” he said. “I prefer nights; during the day, I can do stuff.”

Uballe took the packaging and delivery gig to earn some extra cash.

He’s had the same two routes for the last 10 months. He has all 600 homes and schools memorized, he said.

Most of the time, he chucks the paper out his window, but occasionally he has to get out of his car for those customers who request the paper be placed on their porch.

Between 1 and 2 a.m., Uballe loads up his vehicle and takes off down an empty Creekside Road, headed toward his first route in north Valencia.

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