'Sun-Times' Hires Mechanic to Fix Production

By: Jim Rosenberg Not punished enough by the New York Post's new plant and presses, Barry Mechanic took on the production woes of another tabloid arguably more troubled by letterpress-to-offset conversion and lived to tell colleagues about it at the annual America East trade show and conference this week in Hershey, Pa.

The Chicago Sun-Times and Hollinger Chicago Group operations vice president credits his success in Chicago to his experience in New York, where he "sort of lived it once before."

"We were able to take a press that didn't work and get something out of it," said Mechanic, an electrical engineer with an MBA, whose first job was in his father's print shop. "It really was pretty messed up."

Mechanic -- who still lives near New York City -- spoke during a morning-long session opened and closed by representatives of print-quality award-winning dailies in northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania Though Mechanic retraced the path in reviving Sun-Times production from its former desperate daily struggle to deliver a paper, the paper today more often than not also has the crisp, clean color printing of an award winner.

"What do you do when nothing's working?" asked Mechanic, emphasizing the next-to-last word. The Chicago paper had gone through multiple production directors, production managers, and pressroom managers, and it had tossed out press manufacturer Goss along the way in the belief that "they could do it better," said Mechanic -- who was eventually asked to take over about two years after the first press had been installed.

Upon arrival, Mechanic was confronted with inconsistent production, poor quality, late off times, and lots of start-up waste. Because stopping risked web breaks, the press was not stopped to fix problems.

The Sun-Times presented Mechanic with two Goss Universals that were not working and pressroom employees whose "attitude was, 'They're just baby Newsliners,'" he recalled. The assumption was that anyone who could run the latter should be able to run the former. But, said Mechanic, "it's just not the same press" -- with differences stretching from inkers to folders.

"We didn't have standard operating procedures," Mechanic recalled. "Fundamentally, there were no operating procedures," he said. One thing would be tried, then another, in a haphazard reaction to production problems.

Mechanic ran into something else -- distrust. He was the new guy, and not the first new guy. While "they had been living it," he had just arrived, and, further, was always reminded that he wasn't a pressman. The key to taking control in Chicago was gaining trust, and employees didn't know if he, too, would soon move on. Still, he'd been at the Post and "knew how to move forward" in a similarly difficult situation.

From his time at the Post, Mechanic listed the top 10 things not to do in a letterpress-to-offset conversion in a new plant:

? Pick a press manufacturer that's headed into bankruptcy.
? Chose components (controls, inkers, reelstands, etc.) that never have been used together. With Goss "willing to do anything we wanted," he said, its Global Newsliner was made partly in the U.S. and partly in the U.K.
? Make sure no one knows anything about offset.
? Stop all training after the first press is running, because there are not enough pressmen to run both operations.
? Stop all cleaning and maintenance to keep overtime costs from killing the budget. (He found "a quarter inch of gunk on top of the angle bars.")
? Strike a really good deal for (old) paper that no one else wants.
? Throw the company responsible for press installation off the project because of late installation of components that had never before been used together. When Goss left, so did its knowledge and subcontractors, Mechanic noted.
? Redesign equipment rather than figure out why something didn't work. Mechanic cited $300,000 spent on anti-wrap trolleys that later proved unnecessary when the cause of web wraps was discovered.
? Support a consultant with a habit of denigrating American workers.
? Build a 980-foot-long pressroom for in-line rather than parallel presses, where no one at one end knows what's happening at the other end. "There's no operational reason for doing this," Mechanic insisted.

Briefly, printing had problems, according to Mechanic, because it is difficult to print well using a large, integrated system when one thing fails to function correctly. And at the Sun-Times, nothing worked right. Goss, he said, just wasn't kept on long enough to commission the presses and find and fix every problem.

Mechanic said the mess could only be fixed by dealing with one problem at a time. He started by cleaning everything, putting the "toughest foreman we had in charge of the cleaning crew."

Then, when he could examine maintenance items, 90% of rollers and blankets had to be replaced. Until then, only serious damage occasioned replacement. The old durometer gauge hadn't been calibrated. A new one was purchased. Almost all register pins had to be adjusted. And after iron-to-iron checking and resetting, the reelstands were finally attached to the floor. They hadn't been level and trammed.

"Basically, I took three years of maintenance and had them do it in six months," said Mechanic, who called it costly but essential.

With the press ready to run, Mechanic called in retired Rochester Institute of Technology Professor of Newspaper Operations Robert G. Hacker, who taught the staff to fingerprint the press, compensate for dot gain (which until then had only been measured), correctly use the raster image processors, linearize the imagesetters, set ink and water curves, calibrate monitors, and introduce photo sharpening. In short, press and prepress were prepared for optimal printing.

Mechanic remembered the first time new curves in the RIPs were used as a disaster. The photo staffers hadn't been informed. But the success that followed produced a good-looking paper, and that, said Mechanic, finally "changed everybody's attitude."

Further progress resulted from changes related to paper ("one of the first things we did was toss out 1500 tons of paper"), procedures (no more re-engineering the press), and personnel, while future progress is anticipated from investment in add-ons and upgrades.

In the area of personnel, changes affected management as well as labor. "We've got to make managers manage," checking for themselves that work gets done, and certainly not assuming that the Universal is merely a "baby Newsliner," said Mechanic.

They also must talk with operators about making improvements instead of relying on verbal abuse.

A dedicated maintenance crew was created and uses standard operating procedures.

The oldest among the press operators thought more about retirement than changing work practices. So the paper began training new pressmen using its own apprentice program rather than the union's. Younger employees now clean the presses (cheaper than paying a journeyman to that work) and gradually learn about the machines. The best are selected for formal training.

For all costs Mechanic's ovarhaul incurred, the outcome, was an approximate annual reduction of $4 million in plant costs. Waste fell from 12% to 4% while consistently making off times. Accountability was brought into the management structure and press manning declined from seven to four-and-a-half to five persons. Crews are made to work harder but also are treated with respect, said Mechanic.

An automated register system will be installed and the Sun-Times signed with Web Printing Controls to implement closed-loop color management.

Other improvements include upgrading the Harland Simon press-control system and resolving PPSI inker issues -- where an earlier problem was traced to a previous manager's modification.

Things are running well enough that the paper produces its own TV programming booklet.

In talking to E&P earlier, Mechanic credited Publisher John Cruickshank for his cooperation and keeping his cool through the difficulties in production and, later, circulation. Mechanic also acknowledged ink and other vendor representatives he found hanging around the plant. "Anyone who could was just trying to pitch in and help," he said.

Squeezing an explanation of the turn-around into a single sentence, he advised: "Keep your front end set and your back end clean."


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