INTERVIEW WITH AN 85 YEAR OLD PRINTER
A good friend of mine, Helmut Pötscher, is 85 years old and used to work in Tyrol’s biggest printing company for over 40 years (from 1949 until 1996, to be exact). As a trained book printer and machine master, he first worked at the Wagnerische Universitätsbuchdruckerei and then at the Moser Holding which publishes the Tiroler Tageszeitung, Tyrol’s biggest newspaper, still today.
HCG: You used to work as a printer from 1949 until 1996. This was long before digitalization that we are facing today. I’m sure you can give us some interesting insights into the times back then. Let’s get an overview of the situation back then: How many printing companies were there in Tyrol? Was there even a competitor?
Helmut Pötscher: For printing the newspaper, there was only one competitor, Tyrolia, which was responsible for printing the local Innsbrucker Nachrichten (note: Innsbruck is the capital city of Tyrol). However, Tyrolia was very small and maybe you cannot even call it a competitor. The SPÖ (note: the Social Democrats Party) had the so called Volkszeitung which was printed in another printing company in the Reichenau (note: Reichenau is a part of the city of Innsbruck in the east). But also that was no real competition.
When I started working at the TT (note: TT stands for Tiroler Tageszeitung, Tyrolean’s biggest newspaper still today), published by the Moser Holding, the TT had only eight pages per day. So I started with eight pages. As newspapers are financed by advertisements, my boss Mr. Moser thought there need to be more advertisements to earn more money.
So he employed people to sell advertisements to the local shops. It maybe took a year until the TT suddenly had 32 pages on a weekend. This was a very exciting time that you can’t even imagine nowadays. Of course, the newspaper’s editorial part was extended accordingly, too. So more editorial staff was employed. That was incredible, what a vast increase from eight to 32 pages. In those days, all advertisements went into the TT, this is why the Moser Holding was so successful.
HCG: What else did you print?
Helmut Pötscher: We also printed advertising material here and there, but mainly newspapers. During the day, we printed the Bezirksblätter (note: the local district newspapers) that also went quite well as they also had a few advertisements. And at night, we printed the TT.
The TT’s circulation was 38,000 copies daily, when I started. In 1996, when I retired, the daily circulation was nearly 90,000 copies. Mr. Moser was an excellent business man, he knew exactly what had to be done. For example, we had twelve VW drives for newspaper delivery into remote areas where an ordinary paperboy could never get to. Somebody would get a VW from the Moser Holding, just so that the newspaper could be brought to a remote farmer up the mountain at 6 o’clock in the morning. And this principle of full coverage really paid off.
HCG: What were you responsible in particular?
Helmut Pötscher: I was responsible for printing the Tiroler Tageszeitung and had a team of 20 people under me. Whenever there was a technical problem with the printing machine, it was also my job to get a fitter to repair it as quickly as possible. I used to say "You must repair this still today! At 6 pm, the machine has to start running again." Fortunately, it always worked out, so I was also quite lucky.
HCG: What qualifications did you have to have for this job? How was your education?
Helmut Pötscher: At 15, I started my education as a book printer. After half a year, I switched to gravure printing due to personal differences with my supervisor. I stayed in that job then for five years. My gravure printing education included learning how to work with a paper sheet machine for three months and how to work with a rotary press for another three months. It was important to learn how to handle those machines.
Something, that a printer simply had to have, was a good eye - no matter if book printing or gravure printing. I was very lucky to have this talent. I had to see if a picture had a tiny little bit too much (or too little) cyan (blue), magenta, yellow or black at first glance within an instant. If the yellow tone was too cold compared to the original picture, I knew, I would have to add more magenta.
Sometimes we copied paintings from artists. We made a copy and held it next to the original painting to compare. There was a famous artists who I confronted with "the red is missing here". He stared at me and was stunned by my incredibly precise eye for colour reproduction.
Book printing (or also gravure printing) works like a stamp. Nowadays, these stamps are made of rubber, but back then the stamps were made of plumb. And as the letters were built by somebody manually by hand, there were of course irregularities. It was simply impossible to pour the hot metal to a hundredth of a millimeter. The letters were made of plumb, antimony and tin. This was heated up to 280 degrees Celsius and poured into the letter shapes, which were then manually put together for printing the book.
I had to give the paper the chance to slightly adjust to that metal stamp. It was never completely even, some letters were thicker or thinner. You could see that it was not a 100 % consistent printing outcome. So I made a copy and took a look at the backside of the paper. There I saw where it was more or less imprinted - just like a stamp that you press harder or softer onto something.
This, I had to manually compensate with tissue paper. I looked for the spot which was least imprinted, marked it and added a sheet of tissue paper. And this is how I looked at all the details. Some spots maybe required three sheets of tissue paper, for example. I used to stick it behind the paper to be printed and this is how those irregularities could be compensated.
This was the art of book printing. Today, you have only offset, but book printing and gravure printing died. In offset printing, you of course don’t have these irregularities caused by metal letters.
HCG: You experienced the switch from book printing and gravure printing to offset printing. How was that?
Helmut Pötscher: I retired in August 1994 - as a book printer. Then, my wife and I went on a one week holiday to Carinthia (note: a southern part of Austria). After my return, I received a phone call from my former boss and was asked to come into the office. You can imagine, I was very surprised as I had retired just one week before. I was politely asked to come back to work and work as an offset printer.
I found this very weird, especially as I never learned offset printing which would have been a four year education. And Moser Holding already had trained offset printers at that time. So I discussed this with my wife, as we finally would have had more time with each other and for each other. But my wife thought this would be a big honour for me and my skills that they wanted me back.
Well, okay, I took the offer but limited my new working time to one year in which I learned offset printing in Germany, Vienna and Salzburg. And then I suddenly was the head of department again - but this time for offset printing.
Offset printing was much easier for a printer. At the same time, the end result’s quality was much higher. Nowadays, a newspaper has such a high quality, you would have achieved that quality only in art printing back then.
HCG: How did a typical day at work look like for you?
Helmut Pötscher: In book printing, we had a weekly working time of 48 hours (Monday until Saturday noon). Gravure printing was much busier though. There, I was obliged to work twelve hours per day from Monday to Friday and six hours on a Saturday, for five years. In my first year, I got one week of holiday; in my second year, I already got two weeks. That was it, we didn’t get more.
When I came into the printing company early morning, I switched on the machines and checked if we had enough colour for printing. Then I checked the print shapes, the daily printing plan etc. Sometimes the work could not be finished the day before (despite a twelve hour shift). Then I had to wipe off the print shape with a rubber so that we could continue to use it.
On the rotary press in which the paper sheets were inserted, you really had to have extremely good eyes. At first, yellow colour was printed on the paper. Then came magenta and this is where the trouble already started. What you call register marks nowadays, you had to do manually with your own eyes. Back then, the machines were much slower of course. But still, I had to concentrate a lot and precisely check if all colours were accurately printed on top of each other. I could manually adjust the rotary press with a spindle. Throughout the whole day I was fully focused closely watching the printing and manually adjusting the rotary press millimeter by millimeter.
In the gravure printing process, the colours were mixed with alcohol so they would dry quicker. (In the book printing process there was more time so the colours there were oily.) All day long we were dealing with those colours based on alcohol. Of course, these alcohol vapours used to spread everywhere. After half an hour at work, we were all drunk. That was normal.
Apart from me, all of my colleagues have already died. They also used to drink alcohol in their free time, you know? However, I always drank milk. I don’t know if this kept me alive (laughs), but this was the only difference between my colleagues and me and I am the only one who is still alive (laughs).
HCG: What did you like most about your job?
Helmut Pötscher: That I was always proud and satisfied with the products I printed. And if it was very challenging in terms of time, I enjoyed it even more. I simply loved challenges. I performed best under time pressure.
HCG: Looking back, what was the biggest challenge for the printing industry in your opinion?
Helmut Pötscher: The invention and establishment of television. However, the newspaper’s circulation stayed the same. So, TV was not really competitive, because: there is no TV in the toilet and you would not believe how many people read the newspaper sitting on the loo (laughs).