Production: How to Build and Motivate a Strong, Enthusiastic Team


When is the last time you tried hiring for a key production position? Let’s say in particular a press manager or experienced press operator to compliment your operation and move things forward. If you’re looking now, I have two words for you—good luck!

In today’s world of newspapers, with shrinking salaries and growing demands, it has become increasingly difficult to lure quality help into our operations. Many former press operators have become disenchanted with growing demands on their personal time, long hours standing on cement floors, climbing press ladders, aging equipment and the lack of financial gain to spite constantly growing work responsibilities.

It’s not only getting increasingly tough to convince new blood to get into the printing industry, it’s also getting more challenging to keep the talent we have now.

If you’ve ever read a single one of my features you’d know that while I appreciate and believe in the future of digital publications, I remain a strong advocate of print. I firmly believe that print will be around for quite some time and that done right newspapers can thrive and hold their position as the backbone of communities. Many will disagree, to which I say everyone is entitled to their opinion.

With all that said when was the last time you spoke with a young person about to enter the workforce who wanted to go into the printing industry? I think most of them don’t see the rewards of getting into a business that in the words of their parents “won’t be around very long.”

This thought process is also what has been progressively driving some very talented press operators and others out of our industry—and many within our industry are responsible for perpetuating this exodus.

I’ve had many press operators working for me who have left the industry for greener pastures, and it truly pains me to see the expertise, talent and years of experience go with them. But as painful it is to lose them, it’s sometimes tough to blame them.

Not long ago I had an extremely talented press operator who came up through the company in a way many of us used to be accustomed to. His dad was a pressman before him and instilled a strong work ethic and love for newspapers in him from a very young age. He started sweeping floors in the mailroom, did all the dirty work no one else wanted to, worked his way through every part of the production department, learned the operation hands-on, and finally landed a well deserved position on press.

He grew to appreciate the financial stability newspapers provided to his family and clearly understood that the harder he worked the more opportunity he was afforded. Not long after moving into the pressroom he was running a shift and basically became the go-to guy in the pressroom. Fair and justified increases in his salary came relative to his contribution to the company and all went well, right until the bottom fell out.

This talented individual, who strived to meet his dream of becoming a press manager and following in the footsteps of his father, was easily lured away from our industry to become a mechanic on turbines. More predictable hours, more opportunity for advancement, less demands to do more with less, and of course, a significant pay increase with overtime. He had the mechanical skills, the necessary intelligence, an excellent attitude, the drive and work ethic needed to succeed—and he took all that with him leaving me and the company that much poorer.

Much as our newspapers serve our communities, help advertisers to flourish and readers to stay informed, our industry remains a business—a business that has to make money to stay afloat. As circulation draws drop, advertisers find alternatives for new audiences, and revenues become challenged, the rewards we can give our staff also become challenged. And this financial challenge can often cost us some of our best and most talented workers.

I hear stories like this every day. Many of our production people are being lured away because they don’t see the stability or financial opportunities they once did in our industry.

So, what can be done? I believe a lot. 

Keeping the Talent

For any press operators who are reading this article and saying “Alright, this guy knows we deserve more money,” you might be missing the point. I firmly believe money (i.e. raises) tend to be a temporary fix when employees are unhappy. That’s not to say you don’t deserve one, but in my experience, if you’re unhappy with your job and you’re given a raise to make things better, you’re going to feel like a superstar for a few weeks and then realize nothing has changed at work outside of a few extra dollars in your pocket. At this point, the majority of us simply fall back into old habits and the discontent continues.

I don’t want to speak out of both sides of my mouth here. Money is important, but without job satisfaction, it doesn’t mean a thing and you will move on to other opportunities as soon as they present themselves.

This leads us to employee motivation in production—building a strong enthusiastic team and developing staffing under the challenging budgetary constraints most newspapers seem to be under today. Looming consolidation, outsourcing, workforce reductions, and other challenges threaten to destroy employee morale. Rewarding employees (not always with raises) and building loyalty within your organization is a necessary component to retaining experienced labor.

The first element is letting employees know where they stand. Depending on your management style there are several approaches to this. We each have the one we feel works best for our team.

The worst review approach I’ve seen in many organizations is the “Do your job, and if you do something wrong, we’ll let you know.” Believe it or not, this is a pretty widespread approach to what some would call “teambuilding,” which is pretty sad. Needless to say, this isn’t on my list.

I believe employees who feel they are truly part of the solution don’t spend time and energy on being part of the problem. Including employees in the day-to-day decision making process generates team involvement and is the number one way to bring together a team.

In short, make them feel as important as you believe they are, and let them know how much you rely on them and respect their contribution to the team.

In order for them to know this, you must be honest without being overly critical and be painfully direct without deflating their pride and loyalty. A good review is one way to accomplish this, which is why I’m a firm believer in ongoing performance reviews; in other words, letting employees know where they are on a daily basis or by the event, whatever works best.

A lot of companies are stuck in the basic annual review process and a lot of managers use this as a fallback to delay addressing problem employees by keeping them in the dark, saving up all the bad stuff and then nailing them at the review. What a stupid approach. Let employees know where they stand and what you’re thinking on a regular basis and then supplement that with an annual written review to formalize things.

I can honestly say I have never sat down with an employee who had the look of total surprise on their face in a review. When you sit down to review an employee, there shouldn’t be a whole bunch to disagree on if you have been communicating effectively on a regular basis. I don’t like surprises and I don’t expect to subject any employee to one in their annual review.

It’s getting more and more difficult to secure high quality press managers and operators at our newspapers. Taking care of our most valuable asset is now more important than ever. Here a veteran operator sets color and registration for an outside print job. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

The Review Process

Two-way communication is essential to building a strong team. The first thing is to develop a self evaluation form that is specific to that individual’s job responsibilities and require the employee spend some quality time providing feedback about how they feel they’re performing in their current position.

The basics of their job performance, actions they feel they can take to improve and of course what you as a supervisor can do to help them improve their performance; i.e. providing guidance, direction or physical tools.

Customer Service. We all have customers. Employees should know who they are. If you have commercial work, production operators need to know what they’re doing to serve these customers and what they can do better. If you’re not a commercial shop, your production employees should consider the core product and all the circulation department, carriers, subscribers, advertising department, advertisers, single copy customers, news department and other readers their customers. If you have to tell them who their customers are, it’s going to be a tough review.

Flexibility and Adaptability. As we require more out of our production employees, their ability and willingness to adapt is a necessary part of the job. I really enjoy reading how employees regard their performance in this area. It truly shows how successful (or not) folks will be in the ever-changing newspaper environment.

Quality of Work. Here you will see not only what the employee thinks of the job their doing but what pride they take in their work and what they find acceptable or not. I like to see a strong desire to improve things from the employee, and while I certainly love to see pride in their work, I also value the truth that come out here. Most employees are very open and honest in this area and it offers a great chance to have a worthwhile discussion about the employee’s performance.

Judgment and Problem Solving. The ability to make sound decisions and solve problems takes a special person. Many employees follow instructions well and when something goes wrong know who to ask in order to get the job done. The special employee, the one we want working for us is the one who we can rely on to make the right decision and help to solve the problem without simply going along for the ride. A good team member with a bright future will excel in this area and put into words how they’re doing it.

Teamwork and Communication. Pretty obvious quality. A good team member will articulate how they are effective at communicating both to their supervisor and to other members of the team at all levels.

Attendance, Punctuality and Safety. This area is a catch-all. If there is an ongoing issue with attendance or punctuality, you had better be addressing it on a daily basis not at the annual review. An employee shouldn’t come into the review thinking one thing and you’re thinking another, or you haven’t been doing your job. Same goes for any safety issues.

The “Wild Card.” Here is where you’ll find out what the employee thinks of themselves, how they feel they function as a team member, how they fit into the organization and how well they feel they have been doing their job.

From there, I give the blank self-review form containing these headers to the employee about two weeks before the formal written review to allow quality time for thoughtfully filling in the form. Their completed self-review now becomes the basis for my final review.

I’ve had individuals hand back this form with comments like “I do a great job for the money I get” or “I’ll do whatever I’m told to do.” These kinds of responses speak volumes as to what type of employee you have and what you can expect of them in the future (hint: start looking for a replacement now).

On the other side of things, I am often pleasantly surprised with what some introverted workers have to say on their self-reviews and have found some wonderfully qualified managers through their comments in the self-review.

I always fill out the management part of the review before the employee returns their self-review, then I do not make any changes; i.e. I do not adjust any of my comments based on the self-review; my thoughts are my thoughts, and if they are different than that of the employee this provides a great discussion opportunity in the formal review process.

My view of the employee’s performance should be very close to what the employee wrote on their self review or I haven’t done my job communicating with that individual on a regular basis.

I’m not going to tell you how to conduct a review; everyone has their own style, but I will tell you that when you sit down with your folks, if there are too many points of disagreement or surprise on either side, I’d strongly advise you to spend a little more time on the floor with your employees, listen a bit better and make a more concerted effort to relate to the issues of your employees.

Without their buy-in, loyalty and hard work, you don’t stand a chance of success.

Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center, LLC in Lubbock, Texas. Contact him on or at



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