W.Va. Daily Turns Press Downtime Into Profits

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Many a newspaper has plunged into commercial printing intoxicated by visions of turning press downtime into lucrative outside jobs — only to discover a brutally price-competitive print business with hidden costs and production complications that quickly eat up paper profits.

A midsize Gannett Co. Inc. daily in Huntington, W.Va., however, has come across a formula for success by treating commercial printing not so much as a printing operation but as a delivery business.

Think of The Herald-Dispatch as the Domino’s of newspaper commercial printing. Just as the pizza purveyor sells its 30-minute delivery guarantee far more than the quality of its food, so The Herald-Dispatch markets its ability to take last-minute job orders and deliver them fast.

For its growing number of customers, that means The Herald-Dispatch can take a job order for free-standing inserts (FSIs) as late as early afternoon and deliver them by noon the next day to the Detroit Newspapers plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., the Asbury Park Press plant in Neptune, N.J., or anywhere else within a 500-mile radius of Huntington. It can reach the entire East Coast within two days of an order placement, and the entire West Coast within three days.

“You can’t get FedEx to do it any faster,” said Jerry Epling, production director of The Herald-Dispatch and president of the paper’s River Cities Printing commercial operation.

Fast delivery has won the paper a loyal and growing customer base that Epling estimates as 30% Gannett sibling papers, 20% other newspapers, and 10% direct mailers. River Cities’ biggest FSI customers, accounting for some 40% of business, are auto brokers that move from market to market offering sales in dealerships. They usually need inserts delivered to the local paper by yesterday. They’re not the kind of customers that haggle on price, Epling said: “When we get into fast-turnaround jobs, we don’t get into price [negotiation] because the people are too late to go anywhere else.”

Nevertheless, the customer base grows about 7% annually. The Herald-Dispatch (circulation 34,983 daily, 39,926 Sunday) is on pace this year to print 150 million FSIs. Business grows almost entirely on word-of-mouth. About the only selling River Cities does is what Epling calls “skid-top” marketing: “We put samples and a rate card on top of the skids. That’s targeted to production directors and advertising personnel at the newspapers who receive our inserts. This program built our name recognition and awareness of our business among newspapers.”

Everything is low-cost about the operation. The paper does not use its own trucks, but instead ships in less-than-truckload lots on one of three favored carriers. Commercial printing also does not tie up the seven-unit, three-deck Wood Metropolitan letterpress that prints the daily.

River Cities prints on three Didde MCP half-web presses that run webs as narrow as 11 inches and have been upgraded from four- and six-color capacity to eight colors. Only one of those Didde presses was purchased new. When printing jobs threatened to overtake press capacity, River Cities chose not to add a fourth Didde, but to install Enkel automatic splicers on the presses, increasing output to 35,000 copies per hour from 22,000. Epling estimated that buying used and increasing output has saved the commercial operation $500,000 in capital costs.

Like the pizza that Domino’s bakes, The Herald-Dispatch‘s commercial printing quality is good enough. A graphic artist assigned only to commercial work produces FSIs that customers like, and there are no plans to start printing slick inserts, Epling said: “We don’t think that’s where we need to be. Besides, newspapers are notorious for doing a poor job with slick printing.”

Success with FSIs, however, has brought outside work to its letterpress, which runs very good quality work because of the newspaper’s state-of-the-art prepress systems. For the last four years, The Herald-Dispatch has printed Marshall University’s student newspaper. Just this March, the daily began printing the thrice-weekly Big Sandy News, located about 75 miles away in Paintsville, Ky. “This account,” Epling said, “will spend over $300,000 with us this year.”

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