By: Jim Rosenberg and Mark Fitzgerald
Even in good times, newspapers, kidding on the square, referred to themselves as The Daily Miracle. Nowhere perhaps does that name resonate more than in operations, with its Pandora’s Box of everyday travails — from down computers to web breaks, and balking inserters to impassable roads on paper routes. So no one should be shocked that in these most difficult times for the newspapers, it is operations executives who are proving among the most industrious of miracle workers.
The 15 Production All-Stars recognized this year are exemplars of operations departments in newspapers throughout North America that found a way to achieve even more cost savings, to discover yet another incremental revenue-generator, to juggle and streamline, consolidate and carry on.
Listen to their stories, and a pattern emerges. Today’s production executive is increasingly a Jack of all trades, a wearer or many hats, no matter how big or small the newspaper is.
They understand every department, every corner of the newspaper — often because they’ve worked there. Among E&P’s All-Stars is a former flyboy who’s now Chief Operating Officer of a chain leading the transformation to digital-first publishing. Another is an editor now in charge of all production and circulation operations.
These Production All-Stars have had to make hard choices. “The people in our industry are not people who stay a year or two and leave. Many are here for 20 years or more. For many it’s generational,” observes Anthony Triner, vice president of production for Sun-Times Media.
But they do not shrink from the big challenges posed by a transforming media environment. “We have to get out of manufacturing, we have to get out of the delivery business. It’s not a core competency anymore,” says the former flyboy, Journal Register Co. president and COO William J. Higginson.
In fact, they approach this tectonic shift the way they approach the quotidian challenges of the Daily Miracle. Says Mike Quinn, senior vice president operations and circulation at Detroit Newspaper Partnership: “Every new element that gets thrown your way provides new opportunities, if you can identify them.”
William J. Higginson
President and Chief Operating Officer
Journal Register Company, Yardley, Pa.
William J. Higginson began his newspaper career in 1973 as a flyboy in the pressroom of the old Matzner Publications in northern New Jersey. Now he’s president and COO of Journal Register Co. as it seeks to transform itself to a digital-first multi-platform media company where printing is decidedly not a priority.
“We are laser-focused on two core competencies: content creation, and sales and marketing. That’s where the resources must go,” he says. Printing, Higginson says, is being consolidated into regional boxes, including two big plants built on his watch at JRC.
In the past decade Higginson designed and oversaw the construction of the company’s two leading press halls in Exton, Pa. and Macomb, Mich. Before his current role, he also designed Journal Register Offset, which consolidated six printing facilities and features a 42 couple Man Roland Geoman presses. The plant now prints more than 60 newspapers — and at such high quality that it was accepted into the 2006-2008 International Newspaper Color Quality Club competition run by Ifra.
Journal Register is looking to be both an outsourcer and in-sourcer of manufacturing and delivery. “We have to get out of the business of running trucks,” he says. “We don’t have to be managing these big properties that have half the workforce they used to.”
Still, Higginson isn’t reigning over the death of print at JRC. “I don’t believe print is going away,” he says. “Where we don’t have the opportunity to outsource or partner, then we want to be that regional box and turn it into a profit center or, if not a pure profit center, then reduce fixed costs as much as we can.”
Senior Vice President of Operations and Strategic Planning
The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
Richard Rinehart left almost nothing untouched in driving down costs in operations. After years of running two presses on the main edition, close work with the news and circulation departments enabled switching to one press, with substantial savings on staff and plates and making the N&O among the few papers printing more than 200,000 copies on one press.
Rinehart’s team pushed the limits of web-width reduction, slimming the N&O to 43.75 inches and minimizing conversion waste by sending 48-inch rolls to other McClatchy papers and trimming plates to 11 inches.
This followed oversight a $24 million expansion: a new off-site inserting facility, two new press towers and a revamped downtown mailroom.
Rinehart’s pursuit of revenue has the mailroom inserting for sister papers in the Carolinas and Georgia, the pressroom printing a thrice-weekly, and cooperation with advertising on wraps, spadias, self-stick notes and other non-traditional formats.
Employees are encouraged to submit work orders for malfunctioning equipment. Frequent dialogue between managers and workers has brought safety incidents down from 20 in 2004 to fewer than five in recent years — with no lost time.
“Our packaging operation nets the highest productivity numbers in McClatchy,” says Publisher Orage Quarles III, who credits Rinehart with “focused and direct” management. “He does a wonderful job of listening and then offering solutions that are creative and cost efficient,” says Quarles.
Rinehart recalls “very high expectations” for quality and productivity at the new inserting center — his most challenging but also the most rewarding project in recent years, he says. Commending staff commitment to checking and re-checking, using barcodes but also keeping an eye on product as it’s processed, “it took a lot of work to foster that culture,” he says. “Part of it is machine, but most of it is people who really do care about their workplace and goals.”
MORE THAN 75,000 CIRCULATION
Director of Operations
The Times of Northwest Indiana, Munster, Ind.
Virtually everyone in the newspaper industry had a bad 2009. Dominic Crews, though, knew it was going to be a very challenging year pretty early when, on Feb. 5, a fire swept through the pressroom, destroying one unit and damaging several others. The smoke deposited contaminants that would corrode stainless steal on nearly every surface, recalls Publisher Bill Masterson Jr.
Eighteen months later, the job of repairing and cleaning up damage that reached into literally every piece of equipment in the building continues. Every inch of wire and all electrical equipment had to be replaced or repaired. Yet, Masterson notes, the Times never once failed to publish a full and complete product.
Neither has the cleanup stayed Crews and his team from finding cost savings. He wrung out costs of about $750,000 annually by consolidating press runs from straight to collect for live inserting and reduced start-up waste by changing the zoned products printing schedule. The Times narrowed its web twice in three years, shaving another $350,000 in costs. Crews even found another $100,000 in annual savings by implementing an electrical capacitor bank system that eliminated the spikes in power usage that triggered surcharges.
Vice President of Operations
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In 2009, Sheila Davidson’s circulation operations team won its imprimatur of process and manufacturing excellence in becoming ISO-certified. Her production group renewed its ISO 9001 certification. The Journal Sentinel also picked up an additional $4.3 million in new commercial print revenue as it picked up three new big customers: the Kenosha News, Sheboygan Press and the 39 editions of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Pioneer Press.
“Sheila almost single-handedly created and grew a commercial delivery business using our newspaper carrier force,” says Publisher Betsy Brenner. “Today, that business will represent nearly $6 million in revenue this year for our company.”
All this was accomplished even as newspaper-wide headcount reductions forced Davidson to cut the operations staff by a third.
Davidson was a 27-year veteran Chicago Tribune circulation manager when she came to Milwaukee as it circ director. She came convinced that circulation and production must work closely, a philosophy key to developing the delivery business. “We like to think we’re not just printing and delivering, but adding customer service,” Davidson says. “That’s where a circulation person really gets it, because he’s in front of the customer all the time.” The unionized pressroom has caught that fever, too, she says, “and now they’re always of new ways to turn that press” into a new-revenue generator.
Operations Vice President
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Pleased to note that local consumer products giant Procter & Gamble’s famous Ivory Soap purity boast has nothing on his operation’s 99.85% preprint accuracy rate, Dave Preisser also can proudly point to converting 27 weeklies from broadsheet to Berliner format while outsourcing their printing in full color, saving $4,000 a week taking total-market-coverage production in house — and $21,000 a week switching the TMC product from the letter carriers to newspaper carriers while preserving delivery credibility through a verification system and accruing further savings from negotiations with vendors.
His consolidation of Newspaper Network of Central Ohio’s weekend inserting at one plant reduced its inserting costs by 20%. Overseeing the closing of an underused plant, he shared some of its equipment with other Gannett plants and sold off the rest. Mailroom efficiency rose at least 5% a year for four years, and the pressroom prints to sufficiently high standards on its 1970s-vintage presses that it now takes commercial work. Just as important, injury rates were pushed below Gannett’s average and to almost half the industry’s average.
Two years ago, Preisser added responsibility for circulation and information technology, “and the results have once again been there, with improved complaints per 1,000 in circulation and successfully completed consolidations and projects in IT,” says Enquirer Publisher Margaret E. Buchanan.
“Bringing our TMC in house, having to become postal compliant — that was certainly one of the top challenges we faced,” Preisser says of projects in recent years. “There was a lot of revenue at risk. We certainly couldn’t afford to jeopardize any of that.”
Working with unions was gratifying, Preisser says, because it made operations more productive, saved jobs, and enabled printing of other newspapers, including eight Gannett papers in Ohio.
Senior Vice President, Operations and Circulation
Detroit Media Partnership
Overseeing production and circulation, Mike Quinn’s role was critical when home delivery was cut last year to three days a week. Truck runs and leased warehouses came in under budget, newsprint for the TV book was reduced, one Sunday advance run eliminated, and inserting and single-copy shifts were reduced. Year-over-year savings exceeded $20 million.
Further savings flowed from a narrower web width, more efficient lighting, and redeployment of a smaller staff in fewer leased facilities and an unoccupied headquarters area with reduced HVAC. After helping design the $177 million plant, Quinn also spent months working overnight to coordinate workflow.
Awarded a Gannett President’s Ring for outstanding performance last year — and having also served briefly as acting advertising vice president — Quinn is credited with trying new ideas, overcoming problems, often on deadline, and anticipating the unexpected. He helped set up same-day mail and seven-day premium delivery and helped expand a profitable Sunday Select non-subscriber preprint program. ABC’s 2007 packaging audit of 99%-plus accuracy was the highest achieved by any major metro.
“We are now running press leads that manroland said could not be done. This has given us the opportunity to grow our commercial printing business,” says Executive Vice President Joyce Jenereaux. Quinn, she adds, also led experiments with unique folds “that have become part of our new product portfolio and are being offered to advertisers — sometimes with Mike making the client presentation.”
Quinn calls the delivery change his biggest recent challenge. “Every new element that gets thrown your way provides new opportunities, if you can identify them,” he says. Along the way, he prefers sustained incremental progress to single huge improvements, and says his greatest satisfaction is his staff’s success — “helping each other, solving problems together.”
Vice President of Production
Sun-Times Media, Chicago
No newspaper in America has been as snake-bit by misfortune as often and deeply as the Chicago Sun-Times. It suffered under the penurious leadership of Conrad Black and David Radler, the lieutenant he appointed as publisher. Resources denied the newspaper were allegedly diverted to private purposes, and both men spent time in jail on fraud convictions. A circulation scandal further wounded the paper, forcing costly advertising make-goods.
And all this happened before the newspaper industry recession took hold.
It’s no surprise that job one for Anthony Triner was shaking out production costs at a chain that had far more capacity than it needed. In the space of three years, Triner consolidated Sun-Times Media’s Chicago region printing plants from five to just one. He implemented reliability standards that cut delivery complaints by 47%. Working with editorial, Triner converted the seven dailies that were still broadsheets to tabloids — in just seven weeks. Printing of its 39 Pioneer Press weeklies was outsourced at considerable cost savings.
“When we are faced with a small crisis, or with a major technology challenge, again and again he has stepped up with his team to bring the right alternatives to the table. In every case it has happened with exceptional return on investment,” says COO Rick Surkamer.
“It seems we had to reestablish our credibility all the time,” Triner says of the bad old days. “But we’ve never, ever stopped being a well-written, well-produced newspaper.”
Operations Vice President
Tucson Newspapers Inc.
As Gannett’s West Group Production Director, Larry Urrutia improved efficiency at several locations through consolidation. Urrutia kept Tucson Newspapers’ total waste numbers in the top five of JOA partners Gannett and Lee Enterprises; soon after arriving, he quickly converted to computer-to-plate output, saving substantially on labor and materials; he brought the papers’ web widths down to 48 inches, and then 44, while retaining the ability to run the 48-inch web needed by several commercial accounts — making Tucson among the few doublewide printing facilities capable of printing on multiple web widths. Under his direction, commercial printing grew from nonexistence to a multimillion-dollar revenue stream.
Urrutia’s focus on safe work practices has been the driving force behind a substantial reduction in lost-time accidents and associated expenses. Annual accident frequency average was reduced from more than 25 to fewer than 10 largely as a result of programs he implemented.
A seasoned production veteran respected in the industry, Urrutia can draw upon his deep knowledge of production technology and his wide network of business colleagues. His approachable management style and can-do attitude are highly regarded by subordinates and others in the company.
“Under his leadership, the Tucson Newspapers operations department has ‘right sized’ while maintaining a high degree of efficiency and quality,” says President and CEO Michael Jameson. “His interpersonal skills, ability, background and leadership have helped allow me to focus on growing our business.”
“Doing more with less is probably the thing we’re focused on the most,” says Urrutia. “Our economic climate has brought out the best in everybody. The top performers are even better. People in general take less for granted these days. That’s especially true of the front-line managers.”
UNDER 75,000 CIRCULATION
Salina (Kan.) Journal
After he crunched the numbers and Harris Enterprises gave the green light to print the Hays Daily News in Salina, Dave Atkinson persuaded his publisher to take in the old press from Hays as well. Acting as project general contractor, he also took on work himself, knocking out walls, rearranging equipment and installing 10 Goss Community units without changing outside walls.
With the “new” one-around efficiently running shorter jobs, plate savings alone cover project costs, while extra capacity accommodates growing commercial printing. An early advocate of direct-to-plate output, Atkinson increased commercial work without adding staff, and sends technical teams to aid customers. Showing that proper margins could offset multiple roll sizes’ higher waste, he increased commercial printing revenue 12-fold.
Recycling initiatives netted $28,000. To reduce web width, Atkinson had his staff cut down conveyors and trim plates, and he advised others in the group. State inspectors were invited into the plant to assure compliance with safety standards. When he couldn’t convince his crew that one operator could run the Urbanite, the 42-year employee cranked up the press himself. Atkinson will move back press time for late news or advance it for inclement weather. Having taken on two additional departments, he is responsible for prepress, press, building and distribution.
A hands-on leader, Atkinson “can be found reworking spreadsheets for commercial bids or helping feed hoppers on inserting and bindery equipment,” says Publisher Tom Bell. “He spent hours swinging a hammer and working a pry bar” to prepare for the new press pad.
With production consolidation his most challenging project, months of planning led to “a wealth of information,” Atkinson says, from “a lot of good people out there.” He attributes its success to staffers’ willingness “to step up and make it work.”
The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.
In nominating Cindy Cowan as a Production All-Star, Daily Times Publisher John Elchert wrote that she “wears many hats and juggles many responsibilities” at the 16,00-criculation MediaNews Group daily. No kidding. At one point, Cowan for nine months ran both the editorial and production departments at the same time.
But then, that’s not surprising for someone who pushed her college to allow her to follow both a journalism and a printing emphasis. Even as editor of Pittsburg State University’s college paper, she says, “I was always interested in what happened to the pages after they left.”
On Cowan’s watch, the little Daily Times became one of the first newspapers in New Mexico to paginate. She replaced the 8-into-1 inserter with a 10-into-1, strapped a 150-horsepower motor to its Goss Urbanite and increased it from six units to 10 units. With the only big press in its market, the Daily Times was able to significantly increase commercial printing, and the revenue that comes with it. Cowan added cost savings on top of that by reducing overtime in the pressroom and transitioning the mailroom staff from full-time to part-time only. With her deep editorial background — she came to the Daily Times as a sports editor — Cowan lends a hand in the design and execution of niche products.
“To replace Cindy would be a difficult task, and we would be hard pressed to find someone as well-rounded and skilled in so many areas,” publisher Elchert says. Unfortunately, the Daily Times will have to try, because Cowan left the paper as this article went to press. She was mulling two job offers, both from newspapers. “I’m definitely staying in newspapers,” she says.
Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin
With limited resources, Partlow has increasingly shaved expenses in numerous areas — web width, press waste and plate consumption, optimized web leads and page counts. After recent analyses of area operations, Partlow’s proved so efficient that outsourcing offered no further savings.
A 40-year employee who overhauled a 40-year-old press with minimal maintenance expense, Partlow’s contacts supplied parts to keep it running at almost no cost. He researched and implemented computer-to-plate technology, which is expected to save several thousand dollars annually while improving quality.
Partlow and his staff set up an applicator for sticky-note ads, accommodate big, last-minute ads, produce spadias, solicit commercial jobs and work with clients on press runs and color reproduction.
Injuries have been minimal, thanks to Partlow’s help on an accident-prevention program. The Northwest Press Users Group leader’s hard work created strong morale and record-setting on-time performance. He groomed a manager for Sunday edition production and led the recycling program to a “Green Seal” award.
Last year, the operation’s efficiency booked two new customers, helping meet the operating budget. Partlow’s team handled both jobs “with almost no additional hours,” says Publisher Rob Blethen. “Other than newsprint and ink, nearly all this revenue went to the bottom line.”
While “kind of slow going to CTP,” says Partlow, “we really like that no-chemistry Kodak system,” which elicited “a lot of queries.” Joining it, a “Polkadots system handles page pairing” in a “seamless” workflow, he adds.
Director of Technology
Butler (Pa.) Eagle
The fact that Tammy Schuey has been the driving force behind all the improvements in production processes at the
Butler Eagle since being promoted to director of technology in 2003 is all the more impressive knowing that she is, as
General Manager Ron Vodenichar says, “100% self-educated in newspaper production.”
Schuey’s first job after graduating a vo-tech high school was a small shopper where she built ads and composed pages. “This was when the Macintosh first came out, so I read manuals and did whatever it took to teach myself how to use the computers,” she says. In fact, her first job at the Eagle was training the composing department on the Mac system.
“She moved from department to department excelling at everything she was asked to do,” General Manager Vodenichar says. “Eventually she became our director of technology for the entire company. That type of leadership by example is unequalled in my 30-plus years in the newspaper industry.”
Schuey says she takes a simple approach to the job: Whatever project improves the look of the paper and efficiency of the workflow is her priority.
Her biggest project was overseeing the design and construction of the Eagle’s new production facility.
She implemented CTP and software, saving money on materials and inks, and this July headed the paper’s web width reduction from 50″ to 44.
“As the only person employed here skilled to do all of the necessary layout and reductions needed she put in immeasurable time while still keeping us operating day to day,” says Vodenichar.
Operations Vice President
South Bend (Ind.) Tribune
When printing and packaging were added to his circulation responsibilities two years ago, Kevin Shaw met management’s mandate to improve on-time production and quality. Inspiring his team to make on-time delivery their first priority, resorting if necessary to workarounds such as changing a web lead, the on-time rate improved by more than 3%. With multiple zones, it runs 95.4% on time; when late, it is typically less than 10 minutes. Meanwhile, waste was halved and print quality steadily improved, which Shaw accomplished by identifying challenges and best practices and instilling more pride in the product across the entire production staff.
Inserting efficiency was maximized. Staffers who at times let the big Magnapak intimidate them have exceeded prior-year standards three years running, nearly eliminated inserting problems, and improved bundle quality. Hours per insert, per preprint page and per thousand preprints all fell by substantial percentages in each of the past two years.
Efficiency and revenue came together in printing and packaging The Elkhart Truth’s TMC product while the Truth delivers the Tribune in Elkhart County. The Chicago Tribune delivers in LaPorte County.
Vice President and General Manager Steve Funk calls Shaw a “very inclusive” leader, giving managers rein in their areas and expecting solutions and suggestions from staffers — managing in a way that makes all team members “recognize their value to the operation.”
Besides 8% waste on daily runs from the paper’s early keyless-offset press, “10 times a year we’d be three hours late,” Shaw recalls. So in his first year as production chief he set his team loose on the problem, and “they came up with a lot of things to make it work right.” Most rewarding, he adds, is seeing staffers “work together” and “come up with successes everywhere we’ve gone.”
Gulf Islands Driftwood, Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Lorraine Sullivan rescheduled staffers’ hours and assignments to make the most of each person’s abilities in managing the workload and excels at time and project management, with all titles meeting deadlines for creative-input and printing. She managed resizing where necessary to accommodate a column-format change, and often suggests improvements to smooth the workflow from advertising and editorial to production.
Last year Sullivan assumed additional duties as art director for Driftwood Publishing’s multiple-award-winning 5-year-old lifestyle magazine, and this year helped produce a 56-page section commemorating the newspaper’s 50th anniversary. Her high standards influence other departments, and in her 16 years there have been no on-the-job injuries. On the environmentally conscious island, Sullivan ensures that all possible office waste gets recycled.
“She is not afraid to mention to a sales rep that ads can be improved, and sends them back to talk to the client,” says Publisher Peter McCully.
The biggest technical challenge came and went in the 1990s. That initially bumpy conversion to electronic page file transmission ended a huge headache: “We would have to work like maniacs to get everything ready to catch a ferry” that carried pages a mainland printer.
After spending a couple of years away at a city paper, “I found to my dismay that we had it all here, and I came back,” she says, calling the variety of work “all-encompassing” and “very satisfying.”
Sullivan designed the graphics for an eight-week reader promotion not won three national awar