Converting To Offset p.17

By: Mark Fitzgerald Chicago Sun-Times plans new, $60-million plant to house
its soon to be bought in-line keyless offset press sp.

THE SECOND-BIGGEST daily newspaper still using letterpress presses is drawing up plans to convert to offset printing in a new, $60 million, state-of-the-art production plant.
Larry Perrotto, president and chief executive officer of American Publishing Co., said the Chicago Sun-Times expects to get bids from four major offset printing press manufacturers within the next few weeks.
Among the otherwise unidentified contenders: an American firm, two German press makers and a Japanese manufacturer.
"I'm told that if we order [presses] by this summer, they can start construction by next summer. Our desire is to have the beginnings of operations under way in late 1996, with full operation in the first half of '97," Perrotto said.
Though there is still a possibility that printing will stay at its downtown offices along the Chicago River, Sun-Times officials say that more than likely they will construct a new plant at one of two sites inside the city.
Installing new presses to replace the museum-quality operation in the inky basement of the Sun-Times is a goal that has eluded the newspaper over the course of three owners in the past dozen years.
"What is great is that now it is actually going to happen," said Frank Marcangelo, the newspaper's production vice president and the head of the task force designing the new facilities.
Three-line, 66-unit Goss Mark I Headliner letterpress presses have served the Sun-Times since the mid-1950s. Some equipment is even older, with some operating reelstands dating from the late 1940s, Marcangelo said.
And while the New York Daily News may print more copies on letterpress, no bigger U.S. paper prints as much color on letterpress as the Sun-Times. According to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX report, the Sun-Times has a daily circulation of 500,969 and Sunday sales of 493,253.
"There is no one that does the job our pressroom does on color. They are the best out there," Perrotto said. "But we are producing a paper like it was produced 40 or 50 years ago.
"Our view is the improved product ? the efficiencies now available, the improved color you can get ? are in the end worth what will be a significant investment," he said, adding that he expects the project to cost "at least" $60 million.
In addition to aging presses that are increasingly expensive to maintain, the Sun-Times must cope with shuttling product back and forth from an inserting plant several miles away and a garage that is also some distance from the downtown facility.
"On inserting nights, we have trucks criss-crossing each other from [the inserting plant] to downtown and out to the garage," production vice president Marcangelo said.
When American Publishing Co. bought the heavily debt-encumbered Sun-Times for $180 million last December from a New York investment firm, APC officials suggested they were not in any special rush to replace the presses.
But it appears now the company was only waiting until it completed a first wave of cost reductions at the paper.
Many specifics of the new plant remain up in the air, as APC executives negotiate with the City of Chicago over tax subsidies and other construction and infrastructure incentives.
"Our first choice is to locate inside the city," Perrotto said in a recent interview ? coincidentally a few hours after talking about the new plant with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
"The Mayor has expressed real interest in seeing us do that. Obviously, we have also had a number of expressions of interest from various suburbs," Perrotto added.
Two sites are under consideration: On the city's South Side, just across from the offices of APC's newly acquired Daily Southtown, and the other on a West Side location by the Stevenson Expressway that is now occupied by a liquor distributorship.
APC owns the site across from the Daily Southtown and has made an offer for the West Side site, Perrotto said.
The latter site ? which would give the paper quick access to its city circulation base while allowing it to easily chase readers in the fast-growing Southwest and Northwest suburbs ? would require the acquisition of some neighboring parcels, Perrotto said.
Despite the uncertainty about the site, however, some firm decisions already have been reached by the task force planning the offset conversion. Most fundamental was the decision to go with offset printing. No alternative was really considered, Perrotto said.
"Pioneers we are not," Perrotto said of the Conrad Black-owned chain that grew spectacularly through the 1980s by buying up dozens of small monopoly-market dailies.
Nevertheless, the newspaper has several demands of press makers ? the most important being that manufacturers remember the Sun-Times is a tabloid.
"Printing presses are built with the broadsheet in mind," production chief Marcangelo said.
But the Sun-Times puts more demand on web configurations.
"I need color in other locations, so the press manufacturer will have to be creative in how we can take the web through. It isn't just a matter of color on break pages. I may need color on page 57 because that is my lead business page," Marcangelo said.
For that reason, the paper is also insisting on computerized setup controls that can plot new web configurations ? and track a history of past configurations.
The paper has configurations on computer now, but can only use them as a reference for manual setup.
As for speed, Marcangelo said the newspaper wants a press that runs at 70,000 to 80,000 copies per hour straight, and 35,000 to 42,000 cph collect.
Marcangelo's task force also is insisting on putting the presses in line rather than in stand-alone or tower configuration, so that any press can be bypassed in the heat of production.
"I want the flexibility," he said.
There are some other musts: keyless color inking and AC power, for example.
Mailroom decisions are pretty much on hold until the newspaper decides on a site for the new facility.
"For instance, if we stay [downtown] or we go to the Daily Southtown site, I may use single-gripper [conveyors]. But if we go to the Stevenson Expressway site, I know I will have a much longer line, and single-gripper would be too expensive," Marcangelo said.
It is not clear how much new mailroom equipment will be needed, because the Sun-Times has been purchasing new machines in recent years. Whatever its specific configuration, the new production plant is intended to be for the Sun-Times only, APC president and CEO Larry Perrotto said.
In addition to the Daily Southtown, APC's Chicago-area properties include the Pioneer Press and Star Publications weekly chains and a 140,000-free-distribution shopper.
"I don't believe it is in our best interests to consolidate," Perrotto said. "The needs of the various publications are quite disparate. Pioneer and Star, with their targeted markets, have much different production requirements from the metros."
Much like the Daily Southtown, however, the new plant will be designed to take on commercial work, Perrotto said.
In addition to its own 56,000-circulation daily, the Southtown prints the regional editions of USA Today, the New York Times and Investor's Business Daily.
Recently, the Sun-Times shifted printing of some special sections to the Southtown, but there is not enough capacity at the South Side paper to handle much more of the Sun-Times.
And if, as it seems likely, the Sun-Times moves to remote printing and production of the newspaper, what happens to the present newspaper offices at its choice riverfront downtown locations?
In the late 1980s ? just as the Chicago real estate market had passed its peak ? the previous owners tried unsuccessfully to sell the building.
APC head Perrotto, whose own sparely appointed office looks out on the Chicago River, said editorial and business functions are likely to stay right where they are.
As for the present site of the letterpress machines, Perrotto jokes, "Maybe we could put a casino there."


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