I recently discovered one of the most unusual and fascinating outings to be experienced in Bordeaux… or at least it is if you’re drawn t...

Quai de Brazza by night: inside Sud Ouest’s print centre

I recently discovered one of the most unusual and fascinating outings to be experienced in Bordeaux… or at least it is if you’re drawn to industrial tourism and not afraid to stay up late: a night-time tour of the print centre of the regional daily newspaper Sud Ouest on the right-bank Quai de Brazza.

The tours, which are entirely free of charge, take place several times a week between the months of October and June and are led by a friendly team of young guides. Although most visitors come as part of group bookings (organised by works committees, local councils, etc.), the tours are very much open to the general public. And so it was that my elder son and I joined a small crowd assembled outside the facility at 10:30pm on a chilly Friday night.

We proceed towards the factory, where the visit kicks off with a short presentation of Sud Ouest and a video detailing how it is conceived every day a little further along the Garonne waterfront at Quai de Queyries. We are then given an overview of Sud Ouest’s history from a single double-sided paper published just after the Libération in 1944 to its present-day status as the country’s number 2 regional newspaper employing a 900-strong workforce (of whom 267 are journalists). 

Our guide Maxime with a copy of the first-ever issue of Sud Ouest. And a rolled up copy of the previous day's paper, useful for pointing at things and keeping the group in order.
Sud Ouest now produces 16 local editions which are distributed through seven départements across south-western France. 260,000 copies are sold daily and the Sud Ouest empire also encompasses spin-offs including a successful website, a number of local weeklies, a free daily newspaper in Bordeaux (Direct Matin Bordeaux 7), a publishing house and local television channel TV7. All of which sets the scene for the tour of the print facility itself, which has been in operation at Quai de Brazza since 2001 after its transfer from its original city-centre location on Rue de Cheverus, and where some 180 employees are stationed (80 of whom work night shifts).

The first stop is an imposing warehouse popularly referred-to as “la Cathédrale” where rolls and rolls of paper from suppliers in north-eastern France and Norway are stored. If unwound on a flat surface, each massive roll (“une laize” is the technical term in French), would stretch on and on for 21 kilometres. And yet, in spite of the huge volumes stored here, the rolls only represent two to three weeks of advance stock!

We then move on to the “Salle des robots” which is warmer and a touch more humid than the Cathédrale. In this hall the rolls are unwrapped and left for three days until the paper is in optimum condition to be printed on. Seven automated forklift trucks (the infamous “robots”) are programmed to whizz around the aisles to collect rolls of paper ahead of delivering them to the rotary printing machines in the neighbouring room. 

"La Cathédrale" and the "Salle des robots", with an automated machine picking up a roll of paper.
Following the robots’ lead, we too make our way into the “Salle des rotatives”, in other words the ground floor level where Sud Ouest’s three immense rotary printers (which are as tall as the two-storey building they occupy) are fed with raw paper. Six people oversee each rotary printer, with the production process kicking off most nights around 11:15pm (to be able to incorporate that evening's sports results). First to come off the press are the editions of the paper that have to travel the furthest (Charente). The teams finish up around 4am once they have produced the Bordeaux editions and Direct Matin.

From there we walk up two flights of stairs to a viewing platform to take in the sight of paper whizzing through the presses at speeds of 35km/h, and the finished products lined up on conveyor belts which weave their way through the hall.

Views from the upper and lower levels of the rotary printing presses.
We then make our way to the “Atelier des plaques” where the atmosphere is more that of a laboratory than a factory. It is here that teams retrieve the digital files that comprise the layout of each page, which they then convert into the plates that are used on the rotary printers: the aluminium plates are covered in a fine gel that will combine with a laser system to define which parts of the page have to be printed. For each double page which is to be printed, four such plates are produced, one for each of the inks employed in the four-colour printing process used: CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key, i.e. black). Given the multiple editions and publications, between 1,300 and 1,500 of the metallic beasts are produced nightly, dictating where around 700kg of ink is positioned!

"L'Atelier des plaques", with some of the aluminium plates visible bottom right.
Our tour takes us into the “Salle des expéditions” where the newspapers are packed in batches to be sent to outlets (3,900 throughout the region) and distributors (including 760 home deliverers), or else individually wrapped to be dispatched by mail to subscribers. This is where the journey really begins for the newspapers, but that our visit ends (it’s now half-past midnight). A (literally) hot-off-the-press copy of Sud Ouest is given to all visitors, and some even have a souvenir aluminium printing plate to take home.

"La Salle des expéditions"; note the newspapers arriving via the ceiling-high conveyor system.
As you will have gathered, the tour is highly informative and the enthusiasm of the guides is infectious. With fellow visitors we observed how unusual Sud Ouest’s approach is; I’m not sure there are many industry or press facilities of the like who are so intent on regularly welcoming the general public over a period that stretches well beyond the annual heritage days weekend. 

My son Nathan with his
fresh copy of Sud Ouest.
There is a genuine desire to share what goes on; for instance taking photos is not only allowed but is positively encouraged. And, once back home, having a clearer idea of what goes on behind the scenes makes the end-product that little bit more special. So let’s all spare a thought for the Sud Ouest printers as they start work tonight at 11:15!

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