Chicago Tribune makes final press run at Freedom Center

When the closely used presses on the Freedom Middle equipped over the weekend to print the Sunday Chicago Tribune, it gave new which means to the time period ultimate version. After 43 years of spewing out numerous tens of millions of newspapers, the manufacturing run was the final for the Chicago Tribune on the large plant alongside the Chicago River.

The biggest newspaper printing plant in North America is coming down. Chicago’s first on line casino will go up as a substitute.

Downsizing to a suburban facility, the Tribune will print on. However the imminent demise of the Freedom Middle marks the tip of an period, as newspaper circulation declines flip once-bustling printing vegetation into the buggy whip factories of the digital age.

Freedom Middle is being demolished to make method for a deliberate Bally’s Chicago On line casino advanced. Tribune Publishing is shifting its printing operations to the northwest suburban Each day Herald plant, a smaller however newer facility it bought in Might 2023 for an undisclosed value.

The Monday version of the Chicago Tribune would be the first within the newspaper’s storied 177-year historical past not printed in Chicago, bearing as a substitute a made-in-Schaumburg imprimatur.

“It’s type of bittersweet,” stated Scott LaBadie, 55, of South Holland, a 32-year Freedom Middle veteran press operator working the night time shift Saturday.  “I’ve the ironic obligation of doing the final version right here on the Freedom Middle, and tomorrow, I’ve the pleasure of doing the primary version in Schaumburg.”

LaBadie was one among a couple of dozen press operators on obligation for the emotional ultimate run of the Chicago Tribune on the Freedom Middle. Many had been carrying old-school pressman’s hats made out of newspapers and customized T-shirts that includes the grim reaper marking the tip of the printing plant itself.

They had been scheduled to print 160,000 copies of the Sunday Chicago Tribune and 49,000 copies of the Sunday Chicago-Solar-Occasions, each of which might be shifting over to the Schaumburg plant for the Monday editions.

Terry Ford, a day shift press supervisor, gives a tour of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center to his daughter, Nicole Ford, and his wife, Anne Ford, before the last Freedom Center press run of the Chicago Tribune on May 18, 2024. He started as a part-timer at Freedom Center in 1983. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Terry Ford, a day shift press supervisor, provides a tour of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Middle to his daughter, Nicole Ford, and his spouse, Anne Ford, earlier than the final Freedom Middle press run of the Chicago Tribune on Might 18, 2024. He began as a part-timer at Freedom Middle in 1983. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

As well as, the crew was printing 25,000 copies of The New York Occasions, which is scheduled to run for 2 extra weeks on the Freedom Middle earlier than shifting to Schaumburg.

If all went properly, they’d be wrapping it up at midnight, however a number of mechanical issues threatened to make it an extended night time.  After beginning the Tribune at 9 p.m., one among two presses devoted to the run flashed an oil warning mild and needed to be shut down. The press dealing with the Solar-Occasions, which was scheduled to start its run at 11 p.m., developed electrical issues and was in peril of being delayed. The New York Occasions press additionally skilled some glitches.

“We run till it’s performed,” LaBadie stated.

Finally, all of the balky presses received going, and the Chicago Tribune accomplished its ultimate Freedom Middle run at 12:48 a.m. on Sunday.

The dingy swan music was a good distance from the glory days at Freedom Middle, when all of the presses could be buzzing, tended by dozens of operators, printing greater than 1,000,000 copies of the Sunday Chicago Tribune alone.

“For greater than 4 a long time, the Freedom Middle has performed a pivotal position for the Chicago Tribune,” stated Par Ridder, the newspaper’s basic supervisor. “Nevertheless, it was in-built and for a distinct time. Now, we sit up for shifting to a contemporary manufacturing facility in Schaumburg, which is a greater match for our present and future wants.”

Just like the Tribune Tower earlier than it, the newspaper’s century-old neo-Gothic landmark which was bought in 2016 and transformed to condos, the Freedom Middle is one other monument to print journalism throwing in the towel within the digital media age.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Freedom Middle was in-built 1981, a brawny edifice staking turf on 30 acres of commercial land in River West.

Night press operator Nick Ricci stands in the newsprint room during the last Freedom Center press run of the Chicago Tribune on May 18, 2024. The facility printed its final edition of the Chicago Tribune before facing a demolition deadline and planned redevelopment into a casino. Tribune Publishing is shifting printing operations to the northwest suburban Daily Herald plant in Schaumburg. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Night time press operator Nick Ricci stands within the newsprint room over the last Freedom Middle press run of the Chicago Tribune on Might 18, 2024. The ability printed its ultimate version of the Chicago Tribune earlier than going through a demolition deadline and deliberate redevelopment right into a on line casino. Tribune Publishing is shifting printing operations to the northwest suburban Each day Herald plant in Schaumburg. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

The 700,000-square-foot plant featured 10 new Goss Metroliner offset presses, every of which value upward of $10 million and will print 75,000 144-page newspapers an hour. It was an enormous step up from the cramped basement operation at Tribune Tower, which ceded all printing to Freedom Middle in September 1982.

“The Freedom Middle was a bodily manifestation of the muscularity and affect of the Tribune on the time,” stated Tim Franklin, senior affiliate dean at Northwestern’s Medill Faculty of Journalism.

A former Tribune reporter and editor who began on the newspaper in 1982, Franklin remembered the delight that swept throughout the newsroom because the Freedom Middle launched full manufacturing, a facility unequalled within the trade.

Named in a contest by former Tribune reporter Casey Bukro, the Freedom Middle turned the whirring engine of Chicago journalism, the place upward of 1,000,000 newspapers could be printed and distributed every day, touchdown on driveways, doorways and retail cabinets earlier than daybreak throughout a waking metropolis.

Whereas the state-of-the-art Freedom Middle was a breath of recent air in contrast with the dank subterranean printing operation at Tribune Tower, the tenure on the stand-alone River West plant was not with out labor strife.

In 1985, 1,000 union manufacturing employees went on strike as their positions modified amid the brand new printing expertise. Many by no means returned throughout the multiyear walkout after the Tribune employed replacements for the hanging employees.

On the daybreak of the brand new millennium, Chicago Tribune weekday print circulation averaged about 600,000 and topped 1 million on Sunday. Geographically zoned editions made the voluminous runs much more advanced, protecting all 10 presses and scores of operators busy 24/7.

In 2002, Freedom Middle expanded to 940,000 sq. toes, at the same time as digital competitors started to develop, rising capability for the nonetheless strong Tribune circulation, and enabling the plant to proceed to construct its business enterprise.

Even the rival Solar-Occasions determined to cease its personal presses in 2011, shuttering its 12-year-old printing plant on South Ashland Avenue and outsourcing the work to Tribune’s Freedom Middle.

However lately, the rise of digital media precipitated a fast erosion in print circulation, slowing manufacturing at Freedom Middle and completely retiring 4 of its 10 getting older presses as demand for day by day newspapers waned.

By 2023, Tribune print circulation had fallen to 73,000 on weekdays and 172,000 on Sunday, a 75% decline over the previous decade, in keeping with the most recent information from the Alliance for Audited Media.

Extra capability made the Freedom Middle expendable for Tribune Publishing, which additionally misplaced its lease on an more and more useful piece of actual property beneath a succession of homeowners.

Tribune Media, the previous broadcast mum or dad of Tribune Publishing, saved all the true property — together with Tribune Tower and Freedom Middle — when the newspaper firm spun off by itself in 2014. Nexstar Media Group acquired Freedom Middle as a part of its $4.1 billion buy of Tribune Media in 2019. Bally’s turned Tribune Publishing’s landlord in November 2022 when it purchased the Freedom Middle web site from Nexstar Media for $200 million.

Final yr, Bally’s agreed to pay Tribune Publishing $150 million to vacate the Freedom Middle by July 5 to interrupt floor on the on line casino advanced, which is slated to open in September 2026.

Lately, newspapers throughout the nation have closed, consolidated and outsourced manufacturing amid dramatically declining print circulation. The Los Angeles Occasions, a former sister paper to the Chicago Tribune, shuttered its sprawling 34-year-old downtown printing plant in March, farming out the work to the Southern California Information Group in Riverside, practically 60 miles away.

“There was this time when Freedom Middle was a part of a development of constructing these off-site, ginormous stand-alone printing and distribution amenities,” Franklin stated. “However most of these amenities have now been shut down across the nation. And it’s far more environment friendly and far cheaper to provide information on pixels than it’s on paper.”

The Freedom Middle will wrap up all manufacturing June 2 with the ultimate editions of The Wall Road Journal and New York Occasions.

However Tribune is staying within the newspaper printing enterprise, buying and selling the Freedom Middle for the 21-year-old Each day Herald plant on 21 acres by the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway. The Schaumburg plant has two German-made Manroland presses, which have been resized to match the present Tribune print format.

A handful of press operators have already moved over to the Schaumburg plant, which has been printing the Life & Journey, Arts & Leisure, Comics and Actual Property sections within the Sunday Chicago Tribune for a number of weeks.

Many of the Tribune’s business purchasers can even migrate to Schaumburg, together with The New York Occasions, Wall Road Journal and the Chicago Solar-Occasions, with the Each day Herald added to the roster as a part of the plant buy.

Industrial printing stays a revenue heart for the corporate, Ridder stated.

“The business print and supply enterprise has been a strong enterprise for Chicago Tribune for a very long time, and I count on it to proceed to be,” Ridder stated.

Rick Ramirez, a night shift press operator wearing a newspaper hat, attaches plates to a press cylinder during the last Freedom Center print run of the Chicago Tribune on May 18, 2024. The hats were originally worn by press operators to protect their hair from ink. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Rick Ramirez, an evening shift press operator carrying a newspaper hat, attaches plates to a press cylinder over the last Freedom Middle print run of the Chicago Tribune on Might 18, 2024. The hats had been initially worn by press operators to guard their hair from ink. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

A big variety of Freedom Middle manufacturing workers, nevertheless, won’t be going to Schaumburg.

Whereas Tribune declined to say what number of manufacturing workers stay at Freedom Middle, the corporate laid off practically 200 packaging employees in April, outsourcing weekly promoting inserts to a facility in Milwaukee forward of the transfer to the smaller Schaumburg web site.

For a lot of long-tenured press operators, who toiled for many years within the windowless bowels of the manufacturing facility to print the day by day first draft of historical past, additionally it is the tip of the manufacturing line.

Of the roughly 40 press operators working this spring at Freedom Middle, a couple of dozen have dedicated to maneuver to Schaumburg, in keeping with Terry Ford, 64, of River Grove, a 41-year plant veteran who serves as crew supervisor.

Ford is amongst these retiring in June — practically three years sooner than deliberate — largely to keep away from the commute to the northwest suburbs.

“You’ve received to know,” stated Ford. “You’ve received tolls going on the market now, the raises haven’t been forthcoming and also you’ve received an getting older workforce.”

Rick Ramirez, 61, of Hammond, a journeyman press operator who simply accomplished his twenty fifth yr at Freedom Middle, stated will probably be his final yr as a Tribune worker after opting out of the transfer to Schaumburg.

As a substitute, Ramirez, who works the in a single day shift, is planning a cross-country Route 66 street journey together with his spouse after which will attempt to discover one other path in an surprising late-career detour.

“I really thought this was going to be my final job ever,” stated Ramirez. “However sadly, I’m going to have to begin one other chapter in my life.”

As printing operations shift to Schaumburg, the Chicago Tribune can also be closing its Freedom Middle newsroom Might 31. The corporate has leased 3,700 sq. toes within the historic Brooks Constructing at 223 W. Jackson Blvd. within the Loop, with plans to maneuver editorial operations there by July 1, in keeping with Ridder.

Booted from its namesake tower in 2018, this would be the fourth location in six years for the peripatetic Tribune newsroom.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Tribune will maintain a web based public sale for every thing from printing gear, dump vehicles and forklifts to historic newspapers and press plates in a Freedom Middle ultimate liquidation.

The ten printing presses, as soon as the beating coronary heart of Freedom Middle, will primarily be bought for components and scrapped, Ridder stated.

“There simply isn’t a marketplace for that stuff,” Ridder stated.

Freedom Middle will give approach to an leisure advanced together with an exhibition corridor, lodge, theater, eating places and maybe fittingly, a large windowless on line casino constructing with 4,000 gaming positions on the heart.

Whereas the printing heart will quickly be relegated to the historical past books, a really small model of the Freedom Middle will dwell on.

Horace Nowell, 27, who used to bike to Freedom Middle as a toddler to observe freight trains ship large rolls of paper to the plant, spent 5 years constructing a scale mannequin structure of the economic web site.

The painstakingly real looking mannequin consists of every thing from the detailed plant emblazoned with the Chicago Tribune brand to genuine graffiti-laden boxcars navigating the grounds.

Accomplished when Nowell was a 21-year-old Loyola College pupil in 2018, the mannequin was on show within the printing plant’s foyer for 18 months. Nowell now retains it in his Lakeview house.

“It was positively a full-circle second to have it on show within the precise constructing,” Nowell stated.

Rick Ramirez, a night shift press operator, sits in his car after helping print the last Freedom Center press run of the Chicago Tribune in the early morning hours of May 19, 2024. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Rick Ramirez, an evening shift press operator, sits in his automotive after serving to print the final Freedom Middle press run of the Chicago Tribune within the early morning hours of Might 19, 2024. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

With the Freedom Middle about to fall to the wrecking ball, Nowell want to see his mannequin again on show at a museum, or maybe contained in the successor on line casino.

In the meantime, on the Freedom Middle finale, a gaggle of Tribune reporters and editors crashed the proceedings Saturday night time bearing congratulatory indicators to bid the press operators farewell, and to thank them for placing their phrases on paper day by day on deadline.

Former Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose newest story graced the entrance web page of the ultimate Tribune printed on the Freedom Middle, felt moved to be amongst them.

“It’s historic to me, the concept this large constructing that represented a lot about Chicago and about newspapering, is about to fade,” stated Schmich, one among 40 journalists to just accept a buyout three years in the past upon hedge fund Alden World Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing.

For the print operators themselves, it was an emotional night time at work, at instances celebratory, at instances teary-eyed.

Cris Afante, 65, who began on the Freedom Middle in 1985, was press crew supervisor on the ultimate run of the Chicago Tribune on the plant. He shall be heading to Schaumburg on June 2, however most of his crew won’t be there.

“It’s simply unhappy, as a result of for lots of those individuals, that is their different household,” stated Afante. “We grew previous collectively right here. You’ll be able to’t assist however get hooked up to those guys in spite of everything these years.”

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