Last Sept. 21, a page-one headline in The Toronto Star‘s Saturday edition read “Reeling Mexico battered again.” The second earthquake in two days had rocked an already devastated Mexico City and its Pacific coast. The government had estimated that the final death toll might be as high as 4,000. Everyone mourned for Mexico as images of people crying and rows of blanket-covered corpses appeared on TV screens and in newspapers.

So why did that same Saturday edition of the Star run a travel section titled “Mexico, land of the sun”? And why did the next day’s edition of The Toronto Sun also run a travel section on Mexico, while the paper’s front-page headlines screamed about the ravages of the earthquake? Both travel sections contained stories and ads promoting tourism in places such as Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. After the stark, front-page headlines, the travel sections came as a slap in the face to readers. The Mexico on the front looked like Dante’s Inferno, while the Mexico in the back looked like the Garden of Eden.

George Bryant is travel editor at the Star. “This is one of the perils of preprinting,” he says. “Any major newspaper that preprints faces the same risk.”

The Star-especially the Saturday edition which has 10 sections-is too big a paper to print on the day it appears. The presses can’t handle it, which means that some of the sections must be printed in advance. Travel, for example, is printed on Thursday morning, along with other sections such as New in Homes. Entertainment is printed on Wednesday night. Only the hard news sections go to press just before the paper comes out.

The Toronto Sun also pre-prints, though only for its Sunday edition and 92 of 200 pages for the Boxing Day edition. “No presses can handle all the sections of a weekend paper at once,” says Mike Burke-Gaffney, theSun‘s Sunday editor. The Sunday Sun‘s Showcase and Going Places are printed early Friday morning. Comment/Lifestyle and Homes/Classified are printed Friday night. The Sun‘s TV Magazine is printed on the preceding Monday or Tuesday, and the comics are printed two weeks before publication, in Buffalo (most Canadian papers get their comics from U.S. syndications). And all of it goes into the same paper.

The Globe and Mail pre-prints as well. “As news sections grow,” says Lazzlo Buhasz, assistant editor, “the other parts of the paper have to be pre-printed.” The Globe pre prints its Saturday Travel and Saturday Homes sections. Both of these hit the presses Thursday night. The food and recipe section, Shopping Basket, which comes out on Wednesday, is also planned and printed in advance, on Monday night.

The whole process is a race against time: get the story, get it printed, and get it to the reader-fast. By the time the news sections of the paper are printed, other sections such as Homes and Travel have to be done and ready to hit the streets.

But maybe once every 10 years, something goes wrong. For The Toronto Star and The Sunday Sun it was the Mexico story. “But we’re talking about an act of God here,” says Star ombudsman Rod Goodman. “Can you suggest a solution?”

“I am as sensitive as anyone to something like this,” says the Star‘s Bryant. “I feel bad-though helpless is more the word to use. But it’s done, it’s fact. You just have to go on and do the next weekend’s section and hope nothing happens in the Caribbean.”