Best Practice: Oak Ridger Outsources Printing, Switches to A.M. Schedule

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By: Sean Ireland

This item from the May 3 SNPA eBulletin is republished here with permission of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Assocation

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The audit was finished, and the news was bad.

The old TKS press at The Oak Ridger, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was rare and aging. It was the only one of its kind in the country, and parts were difficult, if not impossible, to find. For several years, press workers would cannibalize one section of the press for parts to keep another running. The press audit found that the failure of a major electronic component could mean a long-term or permanent shutdown.

That wasn’t all though. Despite the best efforts of the press crew at The Oak Ridger, print quality was often difficult to maintain at a high level. And even when the printing was sharp, the paper remained very gray – the press had limited color capacity, likewise limiting the newspaper’s opportunity to attract revenue for color advertising.

In short, something had to change for the afternoon 7,700-circulation newspaper. Sticking with its old dinosaur of a press was simply playing with fire, and Publisher Richard Esposito decided he didn’t want his readers and customers to get burned.

“It had been a long-term concern. These guys did a good job on this press, but it was unlike any other press. The inconsistent reproduction was troubling,” he said. “It was very telling when we got the audit back. If certain specific components went out, there were no replacements. We had at one point a 64-page capacity, but that dropped when we had to cannibalize other units for parts.”

After months of consideration, the newspaper decided its best option was to outsource printing to the nearby Knoxville News Sentinel, and, in the process, switch from an afternoon to morning production schedule.

“We had to make a decision, and for our customers and readers, this is the best choice. This is the best option we could take,” Esposito said.

“I started looking into it about a year before we made the decision,” he said. “We finally came to the conclusion the Knoxville News Sentinel was our best option. And once we worked out the details, it took about three months to make the move.

“We talked at length about what the options were, and they were able to accommodate a 12:30 print time for us,” he said. “But we’d already been looking at that too. We pulled back to a true morning newspaper. This worked in our favor.”

There were challenges in the conversion process, of course. Production jobs were lost, and employees had to rearrange their lives to match up with the new production schedule. Esposito said the personnel changes were the most difficult part of the process. “It’s never fun or easy to do,” he said.

“I was concerned about the impact on our employees and our community. We didn’t want the community to feel they were losing their daily newspaper.”

There was an upfront cost factor as well. “We had some one-time expenses,” Esposito said. “We had to drain the ink tank and close our current press down. We had some loss in consumables like plates because they were unique to our press operation.”

But thus far, the conversion, which was made March 5, has been a rousing success. “Our employees were apprehensive at first, but they are very pleased because now we’ve got an opportunity to improve the quality, the content and our look. Externally, the community has been pleased with it because they are getting better quality. Advertisers and readers have noticed considerable improvement in the quality.”

Such positive early feedback is welcome, and adds to a rosy long-term judgment on the newspaper’s decision. “This is a home run,” he said. “What other small-community newspaper can now publish full-process color on every page of their newspaper?”

Esposito has been particularly pleased with the relationship The Oak Ridger, which is owned by Morris Publishing Group LLC and published Monday to Friday, has built with the News Sentinel during the conversion process. “They are a vendor of ours,” he said, “but we’ve established a very good relationship, and we communicate very well. Good communication with your printer is key. They’ve done an outstanding job working with us on this move. They’ve made it very easy for us.”

And they’ve helped The Oak Ridger turn its precarious press problem into a big plus on the bottom line. The newspaper has shed an equipment headache, cut back on staffing and production costs, and gotten a better product in the bargain.

“We now have great quality and color on every page, and opened the door to additional growth on color revenue,” Esposito said.

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