Ed Langlois, managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, builds a page of the newspaper in his Portland office using a page layout program. Alongside changing printing methods, new computer programs have altered how the paper is designed. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Ed Langlois, managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, builds a page of the newspaper in his Portland office using a page layout program. Alongside changing printing methods, new computer programs have altered how the paper is designed. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
There might have been crates of carrots or leeks nearby the first run of the Catholic Sentinel, printed out of a greengrocer’s downtown Portland business in February 1870. Type was set by hand, likely letter by letter, the work illuminated from the glow of kerosene lamps. A mere 800 copies were in that inaugural batch of newspapers.

A century and a half later at Oregon Lithoprint in McMinnville, about 40 miles south of Portland, close to 24,000 Sentinels roll off the presses in an hour.

“Humans have been putting ink on paper since the Gutenberg press,” said Sandy Sherwood, Oregon Lithoprint’s production and project manager. “But the more recent changes in technology have been astronomical.”

How the Sentinel is made — from the tools reporters bring on assignment to printing press innovations and morphing media platforms — will of course continue to evolve.

It’s difficult to predict what the future will look like following the seismic changes in the news industry. Yet current Sentinel managing editor Ed Langlois believes a constant has remained over the decades.

“All the technologies we use, all the efforts we make are aimed at telling a good story,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever go out of style. Storytelling is at the core of what we do.”

Profits and printing

The first copies of the Sentinel depended on the technical expertise of J.F. Atkinson, who founded the paper with partner Henry Herman, the grocer and businessman. Atkinson was a printer who at one point worked as a compositor, a person who sets type, for the Oregonian. Like many elements of printing, movable type was invented by the 15th-century German Johann Gutenberg and allowed the casting of consistent pieces of interchangeable metal letters.

Profits were harder to achieve than a respectable print job, however, and from the start the weekly paper struggled to pay the bills.

Imploring readers to cover delinquent payments became an exasperating responsibility for editors. Advertising covered a portion of production costs, and in some early years, 50% of the paper was ads (versus an average of about 20% today). But subscriptions were the paper’s bread and butter.

Under editor John O’Hara, at the helm for nearly three decades starting in 1903, the Sentinel gave up operating its own presses. O’Hara turned the work over to Columbian Press, which also printed monthly magazines for parishes across the Pacific Northwest. But the magazines cut into advertising income and circulation for the Sentinel.

In 1928, the Catholic Truth Society — founded in 1923 to combat the bigotry of Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan — assumed management of the paper. The society once again changed where typesetting and printing occurred, this time moving the jobs to a couple local businesses.

A devotee of the society, Father Charles Smith, then upped the quality of printing just before he became editor, using his own money to buy a new press — a remodeled Linotype machine. Invented in 1884, the machine afforded a more efficient method of typesetting.

In 1980 the Catholic Truth Society changed its name to Oregon Catholic Press, and the paper was published on-site at OCP for more than 30 years. Printing moved to Oregon Lithoprint in 2011.

To ensure its fiscal health, OCP began subsidizing the Sentinel, and in 2010 the paper’s printing and distribution model was significantly altered: It became a twice-monthly publication, with more than 20,000 papers shipped every two weeks to western Oregon parishes, where the faithful could take copies for free.

Evolving design

Alongside shifts in finances and printing, the appearance of the Sentinel has changed significantly.

By 1919 American newspapers began to feature photographs routinely, and among the first in the Sentinel was one of Archbishop Alexander Christie in 1901. Soon photographs dotted its pages.

But with few exceptions, color was neither common nor of high quality in U.S. newspapers until the development of computerized scanners, different kinds of presses and other technological advances in the 1980s.

The Catholic Sentinel was a latecomer to color, introducing it in the early 2000s in one or two shades on the front page. Layout editors at the time appear inspired and emboldened by the possibilities. The masthead was printed in a range of colors, including a tacky teal, pink and purple, while its look has undergone numerous iterations.

With the widespread use of computers in the 1980s came design software — first Quark, then InDesign — that has made page layout more consistent and professional looking.

Industry standards now guide certain layout decisions, such as where photos, copy and ads are placed. In the first issues advertisements were situated rather haphazardly by today’s standards; for example in 1897 an ad for baking powder ran on Page 1 above the fold.

Codes and composing

Eddie Osborn, with OCP since 1984, has nimbly adapted as printing evolved. His current title is graphic support services manager, but he’s long managed prepress for the company. Prepress traditionally is where publications are assembled, edited and otherwise prepared for printing.

Early in his career at OCP, reporters would submit their copy to the OCP composing room, where typesetters would retype the stories into columns with a typewriter, drawing from an extensive knowledge of codes to produce the desired fonts. They’d then cut up the strips of paper with utility knives and glue the columns of text onto a dummy, or print prototype, that would be used to burn an image into an aluminum printing plate with a coated emulsion.

It was tough to see staff cut as technologies changed, but Osborn also enjoyed the challenge of mastering new innovations.

“We had to recreate ourselves I don’t know how many times,” he said, adding that “working smart is what we need to do.” Publishers and newspaper staff need to be “willing to adapt and learn tools more effectively.”

Jack-of-all-trades

Langlois, hired as a Sentinel reporter in 1993 and named managing editor in 2016, has attempted to master an assortment of tools and tasks.

He writes prolifically, edits, designs pages, updates the web, shoots photos and video, and manages administrative minutia. But while duties seem to multiply at an exponential rate in the modern news industry, such jack-of-all-trades editors are part of the Sentinel’s legacy.

Two years after the paper’s inception, Atkinson sold out to his partner, who by necessity became, in Herman’s own words, an “editor, reporter, canvasser, collector, etc.”

Langlois finds the diversity of responsibilities enjoyable.

“When I’m exhausted from reporting, and don’t want to write another word, I’ll have the energy to make a page look good,” he said. “I like that cycle.”

Langlois admits he’s not always embraced new reporting methods.

When writers first were encouraged to start creating news videos, “I dragged my feet for a couple years; it seemed like too much,” he said. “But once I really got going, I found it was the most fun I was having at work. Who doesn’t like making a movie?”

Videos also have changed the way he crafts stories. He still brings along a notebook and pen on assignment, just in case. But he’ll typically take notes back in his office drawing from rough cuts of his movie footage — and from those create a story.

“When people are speaking to a camera they tend to be a little more efficient, speaking in more powerful, pithy ways,” notes Langlois. “The flip side is they may not be as open; they may have their guard up a little more.”

The craft’s evolution

The Sentinel started publishing online in 1996, and Langlois recalled how in the late ’90s the internet began transforming the industry.

Access to copious amounts of data at the click of a mouse meant stories could be written much faster. “There was a lot less waiting for people to return phone calls, trips to county and city offices,” said Langlois. At first, there was a distrust of the internet, and Sentinel reporters were told to double check all information gleaned there. Though there are now official organizations with trusted content, the paper’s reporters still are reminded to consider sources and verify facts.

During Langlois’ tenure, social media also has revolutionized the newspaper world. Among other things, it compels reporters to get stories written quickly and shared amid an ever-shrinking news cycle.

“Some people are intent on speed because there’s this pressure to be first; I’m not the biggest fan of that myself,” said Langlois, adding that even some Catholic news agencies “sacrifice thoroughness for speed sometimes.”

Witness to truth

In 2020, after stories and photos are placed and pages edited and approved at the Sentinel, OCP’s prepress ensures the quality of the images and files and sends off PDFs to Oregon Lithoprint.

When the digital version of the paper arrives, Sherwood at Oregon Lithoprint writes up a job ticket based on circulation information, the number of pages, how much color will be used and where, and if there are any inserts.

“That ticket becomes the Bible for the job,” said Dave Anderson of the McMinnville printing company.

If a page has color, plates of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks are used. When applied in successive layers, these four shades alone create a full color image in print.

Though much of the publishing process is computerized, there’s still physical labor involved in printing, as workers arrange plates on the press and perform other tasks.

“Printing is a combination of science, art and skill,” said Anderson. “And alchemy,” added Sherwood with a laugh.

Sherwood optimistically believes that in spite of the massive shift toward online news, people will continue to seek the tangible. “We are visual,” she said. Since the Stone Age when people bragged about their bison kill by depicting it on cave walls, “we’ve wanted to share a legacy, a record.”

At the Sentinel there remains a fierce commitment to endure and fulfill its mission no matter the medium.

“Catholic journalism and communication have never been more important,” said Langlois, reflecting on the 150th anniversary. “Our culture and our church both need vigorous, insightful witnesses to truth.”