Larry Thomas, Press and Packing Manager, Lee Enterprises' Mid-Valley Newspapers, Albany, Ore.

By: Jim Rosenberg When Larry Thomas was looking for work at age 18, a friend directed him to a mailroom opening at Lesher Communications' Daily Ledger in Antioch, Calif. But long before new owner Knight Ridder merged the Ledger into its larger Contra Costa Times in 2005, Thomas already was on his way up and out.

He moved to the San Jose Mercury News, where for five years he worked for Stan McCallum, from whom he says he learned much about running a pressroom. And before Knight Ridder joined Lesher in the history books, Thomas took what he'd learned to Oregon, becoming pressroom manager for Lee Enterprises' 12,211-circulation morning Corvallis Gazette-Times and its sister paper across the Willamette River, the 16,932-circulation evening Albany Democrat Herald. A year or so later, with the mailroom needing some guidance and Thomas having the experience, he took on post-press management as well, becoming press and packaging manager.

Common elements throughout Thomas' nomination by his two publishers are safety, efficiency and waste reduction. Each department's workers lead their own monthly safety training sessions. All share a bonus awarded after each six-month period free of reportable injuries. The last was paid this spring.

In three years, waste fell from 7% to 4%, owing to a greater focus on maintenance and constantly updated procedures that everyone learns. Proofing the paper just before printing is one of those procedures. "As soon as we hang the last plate, we pause for a couple of minutes," says Thomas. The press is ready, but the crew can catch its breath and take a calm last look before putting ink to paper. Another measure ensures both shifts start the press the same way every day. Just 12 miles apart, the dailies' Goss Urbanites were joined years ago in Albany. But the runs remain 12 hours apart. Throw in printing of the group's weekly Lebanon Express, and for Thomas "it can be a little hectic."

Instances of high waste are examined, and everyone reports to Thomas what happened and what will be done about it. "Believe me, that's a motivator," he says.

At the same time, technology aided efficiency, and it was Thomas who led a transition to computer-to-plate output. Among Lee's first to make the move, in 2007, the papers became a model for others in the group adopting CTP.

The Corvallis and Albany papers began using Kodak's thermal Trendsetter and Burgess bender about the same time they reduced their singlewide webs from 25 inches to 23. They've since shaved another inch from the width. To improve inserting efficiency with those narrower news- papers, Thomas designed a modification for the inserter's hopper pockets.

For quality and performance, "CTP has just been a godsend," says Thomas, who also cites improvements in stacking and other mailroom technology, notably inserters' "impressive" zoning capabilities. Efficiency and new technology have been important in maintaining productivity in the current economic climate. Thomas manages pressroom and packaging staffs of about 30 persons, which, like everywhere else, is well below the total of just a few years ago. Packaging alone had more than 30 workers when Thomas joined the papers, though mailroom staffing can increase during the busy season.

Rescheduling and other efficiencies have cut packaging department hours almost in half over three years even as preprint volumes have increased, the publishers note.

Thomas set up programs emphasizing cross-training (press crews, for example, can run inserter hoppers) and created a structure in which all may advance after mastering certain skills. Press and packaging crews meet after runs to discuss who or what performed well and what needs improvement.

In the years ahead, "I think you'll see the local papers doing well," Thomas says. "I'm very confident about that," owing to interest in community news. Even as readers' media mix changes, he adds, the kind of local coverage no other media offer "will always be our competitive edge."

Growing out of casual conversations with the publisher, Thomas' membership on the Gazette-Times editorial board provides a perspective that's "a little different" from editors' and writers'. "More a common man's view," he calls it. "It's one of the perks of my job that I really, really enjoy."

Career Highlights
Found his first newspaper job in 1982 in the mailroom at the Daily Ledger, Antioch, Calif., and moved to the Contra Costa Times when it absorbed the Ledger in the 1990s

Joined Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News in 1999, where he learned press operations from Stan McCallum

In 2004 moved to Oregon as press manager for the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat Herald, which, with the weekly Lebanon Express, form Lee Newspapers' Mid-Valley Newspapers

Within two years promoted to Mid-Valley Newspapers' press and packaging manager

Named to the Gazette-Times editorial board in 2007


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