A fact of publishing life in 2019 is that most of us continue to struggle to maintain circulation and advertising revenue. Some properties are less fortunate than others, and many have found that commercial printing helps keep the bottom line up and the organization a little more healthy. It’s certainly no secret that smaller newspapers who five or 10 years ago could support a press and mailroom operation simply can no longer justify a staff that runs an hour or two a day, and equipment that requires expensive replacement parts and maintenance, just to print a small daily or weekly paper.
Times have changed and whether we like it or not, the choice is to change with them or quietly wither away.
It’s apparent that most publishing companies have at least started the move to a digital format; some with more vigor than others, but most are getting on the bus. As this venture gains steam, circulation draws will continue to suffer and maintaining production operations isn’t going to get any easier or more practical. As we all know, producing a printed newspaper is expensive.
Looking at the hard facts, there are limited options to maintain these costly operations. Some publishers choose to hold on until the bitter end which normally results in a fire sale or simply shutting down the publication. Either way, this option ends up with everyone losing, including the communities who have grown to rely on their hometown newspaper.
One very effective yet often painful choice is to consolidate operations into a central print site. This normally results in eliminating staffs from smaller less profitable sites and finding efficiencies through consolidation of publications into a larger central printing division. While it can be a fairly traumatic event for some papers, done right it can preserve overall stability and paint a bright picture for the business.
Regardless of if you’ve decided to go the route of consolidation or you’re simply looking to fill open windows on your press, you better have a solid plan for growth involving staffing, sales and equipment.
With that said, let’s take a look specifically at what equipment and hardware options can help grow your business.
Finding the Best Fit
Different types of presses and equipment lend themselves to commercial work. Many newspaper companies already have some of their equipment on their floor. Other equipment you’ll need to look at investing in if you want to expand into a profitable hybrid (publications and outside commercial work) operation.
I’ll start with what I call the chicken or the egg challenge. What comes first— the equipment to do the job or the work to pay for the equipment? This is a tough choice. I’ve been in situations where we’ve been approached by a huge commercial account with serious revenue possibilities, only to not have the right equipment in place and lose to another printer who is in a better position to handle the job. But the other side of that is buying a piece of expensive specialty equipment before you have the jobs to fill it and then not being able to sell enough work to support it. While I wish I had the answer to this quandary I do not; I don’t think anyone does.
I suggest you study your market, get to know the capabilities of other printers in the area and the requirements of print customers in your target area. Make some educated projections as to what revenue is out there and what the possibilities are that you can secure it. Perhaps call on several potential accounts to discuss what they’re looking for and inquire what you might be able to do to gain their business. Then after some careful projections and cost analysis, take your best educated guess; it may be the only option to the chicken or the egg quandary.
Here are some press options.
Cold web/offset: Most newspaper print sites have what it takes to get into the commercial printing business sitting right on their floor—a cold web/offset press. Sometimes this is all you need to get into the business and possibly all you’ll ever need to turn a profit. If you have a solid sales plan and print a quality product, you may not need much more to succeed. However, if you want to expand and pick-up additional print revenue, you’ll have to add equipment that will allow you to grow accordingly.
First, evaluate the paging and color capabilities of your current press. If you need additional towers or even a few mono units for paging, that can be a fairly inexpensive addition. There are plenty of good used units available if you look in the right places. I realize not many newspapers are adding press units nowadays, but if you want to bring in outside work you’re going to have to have the right equipment and that takes an investment.
Heatset web: For those of you who have worked on a heatset press, you’ll understand why my fondest memory is the searing heat and burning my arm every time I had to re-web. Sarcasm aside, heatset has its advantages over cold web and can be a profitable addition to a print site.
In heatset, printing ink dries rapidly with the assistance of forced-air heat verses cold web in which the ink never really dries, only coming “close” through normal evaporation and absorption. Heatset virtually eliminates ink setoff and rub-off that is common with cold web.
Heatset printing seems to be the process of choice for most preprint advertisers. Grocery stores and big box stores tend to gravitate toward heatset for their weekly circulars. While these mega accounts tend to go to the larger more established printing companies, there is still room to upsell to heatset at many of our properties.
UV printing: A single-wide Didde Glaser press can be a wonderful addition to any print operation. UV inks dry on contact though a photo mechanical process. This process allows you to print, without smudging or rub-off on any type of paper. Enamel paper is a big seller to most customers and the final print quality can rival sheet fed printing at a much lower cost.
A Didde single/narrow-web can provide numerous print options. Regardless of if you’re printing multiple signatures for a stitch and trim booklet, covers to wrap around an cold web offset inside, or fliers to be trimmed into 8.5×11, the quality and versatility a UV press provides can seem almost endless.
Folding: Many presses in “newspaper sites” do not have quarter-folding capabilities. I think it’s safe to say that most daily newspapers and many weeklies are flat folded (broadsheet) and the thought to include an inline quarter-folder never entered the thought process during the original press install. That is going to make it tough (but not impossible) to bring in outside printing that requires quarter-folding.
There are somewhat affordable options available from several vendors for offline quarter-folders. Most of these units are much slower than folding directly on press and also require additional handling of the product, but at least there is an option, and with one of these units, you’ll not have to turn away the quarter-fold work you once did.
Often some of our mailroom equipment can also double as a quarter-folder. Granted, it can be slow-going and there may be limitations on the thickness of the product, but at least it’s an option. Stitch and trimmers with a cover feeder can be used to quarter-fold some thin products, some Cheshire or Kirk Rudy mailing units can also be used to quarter-fold. Before you turn away those quarter-fold jobs, explore all your options.
Stitcher trimmers: If you have a stitcher trimmer, you’ve got a leg up on the competition. These units give you the opportunity to marry gloss (enamel) covers with plain stock guts (insides) or run stock groundwood products as booklets. You can produce coupon booklets and even use a guillotine cutter to bust-cut them down to size. This is a great way to not only pick-up outside printing but also gives you the option to produce booklets for your own properties. It’s a fairly easy product for your advertising department to sell and essential to have available for outside commercial customers.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have a stitcher trimmer in place, there are other options. At a property I was once at in Wisconsin, we had an inline glue system on each web of our community press and a quarter-folder on press. We purchased a Rock-built in-line unit which allowed us to produce glued and trimmed flexie booklets inline at press speed. It served our purpose well and kept us one step ahead of the competition right off our cold web press.
I could go on forever listing equipment that could help you grow revenue in your printing operation. Figuring out what equipment you need to satisfy existing customers is the easy part; it’s getting out in front of the need can be the hard part. Anticipating the equipment you’ll need based on what business opportunities may present themselves is a challenge. Forecasting revenue and building it into a budget to produce a positive return on your investment is even more challenging.
Newspaper companies today are understandably tight with dollars. Profits are not what they used to be and most expense budgets have been cut drastically in order to compensate for downturns in advertising and circulation to maintain profitability. Approaching your boss and asking for a sizable investment in equipment in anticipation of commercial growth may not seem to be the smartest move, but in fact, it may be the best move you’ll ever make. Newspaper presses that are idle are not making money. It’s time to fill those presses with outside work from other properties that haven’t been quite as fortunate as some of us are.
Different companies have different views of an acceptable payback period for a capital investment. Check with your supervisor to find out what your company regards as an acceptable ROI before you start looking at any equipment. I have found many organizations regard a three year ROI as a good target. In other words, if you spend $100,000 on a piece of equipment, you have to provide a solid plan to profit that same amount or more over the next three years to gain approval for the initial capital purchase or otherwise it may be denied. This is tough to do unless you have a contract signed by an outside company needing your services over the next three years. Without making a convincing argument or without the understanding and support of your top management, often you can’t get off the ground on projects and growth will be stifled.
One way to show the need and start bringing in revenue without the initial investment is to outsource part of the work to someone in the area with the right equipment. If you don’t have the equipment for the job, establish a relationship with another printer to outsource mailing operations, enamel cover printing, stitching and trimming, folding, etc. Perhaps you can print the cold web work on your existing press and ship it out to be stitched and trimmed if you don’t have a stitcher. If you can stitch but can’t print enamel covers, then have covers printed outside and stitched and trimmed in house. Send finished jobs out to a mail house if you don’t have an inkjet system, whatever it takes to bring in the customers and provide them with one-stop printing services.
You’ll have to share the revenue for awhile, which is better than not being able to land the job in the first place. But when you’re finished, it could help you to make a convincing argument that obtaining the necessary piece of equipment can not only save you paying an outside company but can also provide you with equipment that may help to bring in additional work.
Remember, sometimes you have to roll the dice. Granted there may be some options in between that I’m not presenting here, but the way I look at it is either you take some educated and calculated chances and get aggressive about growing your revenues or you will let others around you take that chance, leaving you in the dust. Complacency can sneak up and bite you. As the saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.