So if I understand correctly "ich liese" is present and "ich habe gelesen" is past... but why is there "ge" before lesen? Is it also because it is past time?
The present tense is ich lese.
The vowel change is only in the du and er/sie/es forms (du liest, er liest, sie liest, es liest); the others have just e (ich lese; wir lesen; ihr lest; sie lesen, Sie lesen).
The past participle of many verbs has an extra ge- in German, and usually ends in -t or -en. (English does not have the ge- anymore, but for the -t and -en endings compare the regular -ed as in "mend: mended" and for -en verbs such as "break: broken" or "take: taken".)
The compound past tense in German is formed with a form of sein ("to be") or haben ("to have") plus the past participle. So it's formed similarly to the present perfect form of English, which uses a form of "to have" and the past participle, e.g. "I have eaten my breakfast already." -- though the German form is used more widely than the English one, especially in the spoken language.
So the German compound past is used in many cases where English would use the simple past (e.g. Gestern habe ich die Zeitung gelesen for "Yesterday, I read the newspaper" -- English would not say "Yesterday, I have read the newspaper", but in German, the simple past Gestern las ich die Zeitung is fairly uncommon these days).
That's emphatic, emphasising that you did read them.
do as a helping verb is only required in negative and question sentences.
This is neither - it's a statement - and so the normal phrasing is "We read the newspapers", with the simple past tense "read".