By: W. Eric Schult
For this former editor-turned-production manager, the reassuring drone from the pressroom and the vibration of my office walls were inextricably linked to the profession of newspaper publishing. When my employer idled the presses and tasked me to oversee the outsourcing of our printing, I likened it to lopping off an appendage to live another day.
I’ve had 20 years to get over that trauma and as an operations director and commercial print manager for subsequent employers, I’ve held other publishers’ hands as they’ve relinquished control of their pressrooms and entrusted their printing to me. The current round of pressroom consolidations across the U.S. newspaper industry gives me pangs of sympathetic pain, but let me offer my professional assurance it’s nothing more than triage for an ill that needs to be excised.
“It’s funny how unthinkable [this] was only a few years ago,” said, Bob Kuhar, vice president of properties and facilities for Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications, a conclusion based on the wisdom of idling some of its papers’ printing and packaging facilities in response to a litany of pressures challenging its overall financial well-being.
After first shifting the St. Augustine (Fla.) Record’s production to its sister paper, The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2009, Morris outsourced printing in 2012 for three other papers—The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, The Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald and the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway (Ark.)—to non-Morris partners in neighboring markets. Topeka went to McClatchy’s Kansas City Star; Athens to Cox’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Conway to Paxton’s The Courier in Russellville (Ark).
“Cost avoidance is really a big part of this,” Kuhar said. “We’ve all got to get expenses in line with what the revenue has done in the past several years.”
Aside from the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the precipitous decline in advertising across the industry, it was the age and condition of the “Big Iron” in Morris’ pressrooms that tipped the balance toward outsourcing in these cases. Topeka, for example, had a 20-year-old Goss press with a lot of mileage on it and an ever-increasing burden of maintenance needs, while the Kansas City Star, about an hour to the east, “had just fairly recently built a new plant … one of the nicest in the country,” Kuhar said. The Kansas City Star’s KBA Commander presses had gone live “during the height of the heyday (in 2006). After the meltdown happened, they had one whole press line idle” and had ample press capacity to take on the Topeka Capital-Journal, Kuhar said. “We were faced with that perfect opportunity” to strike up a partnership.
Opportunity knocked with Morris’ property in Conway, Ark., where the real estate under its downtown production facility provided an incentive to sell. “We were at that point of having to put some money into press, facility and furnishings,” Kuhar said, and there was, fortuitously, an existing relationship with the publisher in nearby Russellville (David Meadows, a former Morris employee) to foster a partnership there.
The Athens Banner-Herald, likewise, had an existing partnership with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, delivering the Journal-Constitution in the counties where their circulation overlapped. The two papers built on that trust, allowing Athens to shutter its legacy press to improve print quality and add color capacity available at Atlanta’s facility in Norcross, Ga.
For BH Media (which includes most of the former Media General newspapers), there have been aggressive moves to consolidate production facilities within the chain and take on production for non-BH Media papers looking to outsource. The result, according to Dale Lachniet, vice president of operations, is 33 dailies printing at 18 production sites, with some printing as many as four to five dailies. “Most of our print sites print multiple dailies,” he said. “There’s only a few that print a single daily.” Where the chain has versatile equipment to bring in commercial work—variable web widths, color capacity, quarter-folding and bindery capabilities—it’s been focusing for the past 4-5 years on developing that business.
Some of the papers BH Media has taken on in recent years include The Waynesville (N.C.) Mountaineer, printing at the Bristol (Tenn.) Herald Courier; the Valley Times-News (Lanett, Ala.), printing at the Opelika-Auburn (Ala.) News; and The Daily Press in Newport News (Va.), a Tribune Co. property, printing at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. Most recently, BH Media partnered with Gannett to outsource production of The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.) to the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.
“Normally what drives the initial discussion” is capital expense, Lachniet said. “If I have to make a significant investment,” he asked himself rhetorically, “should I be printing somewhere else?”
Other considerations, though, vary from paper to paper and market to market. For Atlantic City, for example, there were plenty of choices about with whom the paper might choose to partner. “I could list five different print sites for Atlantic City,” Lachniet said. “They got good prospects and entertained three of the five.
“They outsourced during the acquisition” of the paper by BH Media in Aug 2013, “straddling the fence” between owners, Lachniet said.
The luxury of choosing between multiple papers with which to partner depends, however, on regional print window availability. In more rural markets, where production facilities are farther apart, there may not be another paper with which to partner. Or if there is, its available press windows may already be filling up after a five-year surge in regional consolidations. A publisher that’s been biding his time, trying to squeeze a few more years out of an aging press “needs to think sooner about it than later,” if he wants to get a favorable press window, Lachniet observed.
What some publishers might expect to lose in the way of control—over deadlines or press scheduling—they’ll gain back with other benefits, Lachniet said. “What a lot of publishers are surprised about [is that they can] make changes in their products more easily” by exploiting the greater versatility of their partner’s press. A faster press, or one that can handle more pages or sections in a given run, can offset any deadline impact caused by the added travel time between facilities. Greater color capacity, variable web widths, and quarter-folding and bindery capabilities can bolster revenue streams not previously available. A narrower web or shorter cutoff can trim paper costs. And there are other intangibles, like not having to worry about “those 2 a.m. phone calls anymore,” or staffing a pressroom in a region where the talent pool is in short supply. “A lot of the small dailies can’t find pressmen anymore,” he observed.
For some papers, Kuhar said, Morris is “entertaining press upgrades, because there’s nobody around to print us.”
As one of the more recent papers to make the transition to off-site printing, the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, part of the Black Press chain, offered a fresh perspective into the experience. The paper contracted in fall of 2013 to print at The Repository in Canton, Ohio, a GateHouse paper a half-hour to the south. According to Jim Deluca, vice president of circulation and production, there was no dilemma over the choice to print or be printed, since Akron “couldn’t run commercial work.”
Between its limited color capacity, inability to run variable web widths, and its use of flexo print technology, which employs notoriously expensive plates, it simply wasn’t positioned to meet the needs of another paper. The Repository, though a smaller-circulation paper, had greater color capacity and a history as a regional printer of The New York Times. It was able to accommodate Akron’s needs with some adjustments to its own press windows.
“We moved our start time” from 12:15 a.m. to midnight,” Deluca said, and were able to retain a 2 a.m. daily finish time, and 2:45 a.m. on Sundays. There were other adjustments. “We did everything on carts” in Akron, Deluca said. “When we went to Canton, there wasn’t enough space. We went to skids.” The added 30-minute drive time had to be worked into the logistics, too. “We sent a semi down to pick it up. That didn’t work,” since the truck had to be held over until the entire print run was finished in Canton. “We had to tweak [the trucking logistics] as we went.”
“It took us about two months to really get it solidified and get the off-times hitting on a consistent basis,” Deluca said. Having started in November—“looking right into the barrel of Thanksgiving”—he characterized the transition as rough. “It was just a tough time of the year to do it. I don’t recommend that.”
The Waco (Tex.) Tribune-Herald was another case study in logistical adaptation. According to Rick Deaver, circulation director, the paper in-sourced its printing to the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, both part of Cox Media Group when the transition occurred in 2009. “The type of press we had was not particularly flexible,” an older, double-wide. Color was limited, and “its web width was becoming an issue,” he said. Austin provided better reproduction quality, more color capacity, and multiple press lines for redundancy.
With a 1 hour, 45 minute drive between the two papers, start times “had to shift by an hour” to 11:30 p.m. “The deadline becomes an issue with Baylor University [sporting events],” but the Austin American-Statesman has been able to accommodate later starts, as necessary. “We’ve always worked through that,” Deaver said. The delivery of the paper consistently hits its 2 a.m. ETA in Waco.
One fundamental difference is that Waco discontinued inserting live into its weekday editions, and started sending out a pre-pack every weekday when inserts were scheduled. That had a favorable impact on finish times, too, since any fluctuation in insert load would create “a variance on how long we’d take any given night” to finish the live insert run. Like Akron, Waco experimented with trucking logistics, sending two trucks to Austin to get rural routes out earlier. “Over time, that was extra expense” and deemed unnecessary, Deaver said. Discontinuing the practice hasn’t had a detrimental impact. “We left the old system in place for too long.”
One bit of wisdom from Waco: “The best thing we did” was to assemble a group of leaders from the two papers to meet via conference call on a weekly basis. “That is the key to no surprises,” Deaver said. For Austin, the team included the packaging and pressroom supervisors and the director of fulfillment, and for Waco, it’s the advertising, production and circulation directors and the controller. “That gets everybody on the same page.”
But prior even to the decision to outsource, the collective refrain from these experts who have “been there, and done that” is to pick a newspaper that will be a reliable partner, a partner that’s “financially strong enough” that they’re going to be around for awhile, Lachniet said. The publisher who is outsourcing his paper, he added, “should get to know, really know, the production director of his prospective print partner, and ask himself: ‘Would I hire this person as my production director?’ Those are the people they’re going to be working with the most.” And “before inking anything,” make sure you’re in full agreement on the deadlines, the trucking times, and the degree to which the printer will exercise flexibility on these.
“It matters who your printer is,” said Deaver. “They have to treat you like a commercial customer.”
Eric Schult is the operations director at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at email@example.com.