As we all face an uncertain future in print, finding new opportunities in outside printing will be a key part of survival for many of our newspaper operations. Most of us continue to struggle through the financial challenges brought on by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, many newspapers were on a positive path, slowly working their way through declining ad revenues, reductions in preprints and the ever-increasing shift from print to digital media. We seemed to be seeing an overall upswing with the new year and I believe most of our publications were off to a strong start in 2020. We still were battling the same revenue challenges we’ve been fighting with for years now, but most of us had found efficiencies in our operations that allowed us to do more with less and drop these savings to the bottom line, offsetting the shortfall in revenue that was part of the print/digital transition.
Then, mid-first quarter, the hammer fell. No one can argue the fact that with the onset of COVID-19 things have just gotten worse—or to remain more optimistic, I should say “became more challenging.” Overnight the reduction in preprint revenue went from a steady downstream flow to a flood of cancelations. Advertising revenues fell off the cliff and mere survival at many of our publications became questionable.
Just about everyone who does outside printing in their “newspaper shop” has seen the same in sagging revenue dollars since the onset of COVID-19. While commercial printing remains one of the bright lights for profitability at many of our properties, it too has taken a serious hit over the last few months. I’ve seen several small publications in even smaller towns that simply can’t survive shut their doors. Even the larger and healthier publications at most of our sites continue to reduce page counts, print draws, color positions and their general spend, subsequently reducing revenues to their printer.
Years ago, when ad revenue flowed freely into our publications and selling an ROP ad was as difficult as stopping by each retailer to pick-up tomorrows ad at the front counter, we didn’t have to worry much about cutting costs. Many newspapers printed a few thousand papers for their core publication daily, had no commercial printing and fiercely competed with other publications one town over who also had their own press. Our production operations were either overstaffed or underworked and there was very little talk of layoffs, furloughs or other cost reductions.
In hindsight, we were clueless. We all know the rest of the story; we were woefully unprepared for what was to be. When the revenue world started changing at newspapers, it was a rude awakening for us all. Over the years, some of us have fared better than others. I still see small operations that continue to maintain full production operations and have their own press, who do very little if any outside printing, yet somehow stay afloat. On the other hand, I’ve also seen many of these diehards who stuck it out to the end—and the end isn’t exactly what we want to see for any publication.
When outsourcing started to become more popular, we all started stomping our feet like a five-year old. If you were at the new printer, you were perhaps okay to see the revenue flowing in, yet many owners couldn’t quite understand why they would want to print the competition instead of just running them out of business.
If you were at the property that was shutting down its operation, you were nothing short of angry. Jobs were lost in production and publications that had been printed in their hometown for decades were moving to the competition in a different community. It was a tough pill to swallow.
In the name of survival, we’ve all had to make some tough choices. Fortunately, some very smart organizations seem to have found ways to work together for the betterment of all. When this happens, everyone wins—communities and owners alike.
At this point in our print or be printed world, one of the smartest and most successful choices I’ve seen any newspaper do is find solutions through synergies. One of the most well thought out progressive synergies in outside printing is coming to fruition in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia between Times-Journal Inc. and Southern Community Newspapers Inc. (SCNI).
Times-Journal and SCNI have had an ongoing relationship that will now include printing, inserting and other preparation services for six SCNI newspapers at the Times-Journal press facility in Rome, Ga. These publications include the Gwinnett Daily Post, Rockdale Citizen, Newton Citizen, Henry Herald, Clayton News and the Jackson Progress-Argus.
In an article recently published in the Times-Journal about the new job, publisher Otis Brumby III stated, “We have been working closely with SCNI, helping each other, for several years. Whenever we can share resources and operate more efficiently, it helps both companies.”
SCNI president and CEO Mike Gebhart also seems to see the benefits of the relationship. “There is a synergy between our two companies that we have tapped into before,” he said. “We are similar in size, product and geography, and this partnership strengthens both of us.”
The Times-Journal article also shares that in addition to other commercial clients, the Rome pressroom currently prints all Times-Journal publications, including the Marietta Daily Journal, Rome News-Tribune, Cherokee Tribune, Cherokee Ledger-News, Calhoun Times, Polk County Standard-Journal, Catoosa County News, Walker County Messenger and the Neighbor newspapers serving metro Atlanta.
To learn more about this new project, vice president of operations Doug Crow took time out of his schedule to answer some questions and provide additional information regarding the transformation of printing to the Rome facility.
E&P: Could you elaborate your existing outsource relationship with SCNI?
Crow: Our markets are close in proximity so in addition to personal friendships, we have explored a number of working relationships in the last few years that make sense for both organizations. These include layout, ad design, copy desk, customer service and most recently, printing and packaging. SCNI is a quality organization that we have a high degree of trust and respect for. I can’t overemphasize how important these intangibles are on some of these major projects.
Will you be adding additional staffing in any areas of operations?
Crow: The pressroom will need no additional staff at this time.
In our mailroom, will be adding about 10 employees to help with the additional shifts.
Will you be adding any additional shifts to accommodate SCNI?
Crow: Yes, we will be adding about seven shifts in the mailroom and adjusting the pressroom schedule to accommodate the additional printing.
Will there be any additions or changes in management?
Crow: We will use our current management staff in place.
Will you be adding any new equipment or making any upgrades/changes to the existing equipment?
Crow: We are always looking to make investments in equipment that provide a positive ROI. However, one area we place a heavy emphasis on is the maintenance of existing equipment. This is important to limit downtime for our customers but also making our existing equipment last longer.
What is the target date to move printing to the Rome facility?
Crow: The transition started in mid-July and was completed in late August.
What are your plans for phasing in this printing?
Crow: We started printing and inserting mid-July of their Sunday package for the Gwinnett Daily Post. We moved all of their products for the North Atlanta area to our Rome facility by late August. This does not include the Albany Herald.
Is the transfer in any way related to the recent COVID-19 events? Or simply older equipment shutting down at SCNI?
Crow: The prevailing thought over the last decade in our industry is outside of news gathering and ad sales, newspapers should either provide a particular service to others, like printing or outsource altogether. I believe there is strong merit to that line of thinking. Either side of the decision—insource or outsource—can be beneficial to an organization. It just depends on a newspaper’s set of circumstances which direction to go. If you decide to outsource and provide commercial work, it’s important to be able to do the service well and deliver a quality product to your customers.
In our case, the decision and investments were made over a decade ago to get into the commercial printing and packaging business in the northwest Georgia region. From there, we made additional investments and added services such as delivery, ad production, layout, pagination and customer service support.
With having most of our software applications in the cloud, the pandemic has illustrated that many of these services can be performed, and performed well from almost anywhere.
Could you provide information on the current equipment/functions of the plant in Rome?
Crow: We have two Kodak trendsetters and NELA punch and bender. Our press operation has DGM 430 15 units with 24-page capacity and 12 pages of available color, and our mailroom operations has two SLS 1000/one line 16/2 and the second line 10/2.
Could you provide any additional operational information?
Crow: We run seven days a week. The pressroom has eight shifts per week. The mailroom runs 15 shifts per week.
Could you give a brief history on the Rome printing operation?
Crow: The printing press was installed in 2007. We started adding commercial work in 2008.
You seem to have your hands full printing in Rome, and now as you add to it, what are your plans to make it all fit?
Crow: We’ve been negatively impacted by COVID-19 like just about everyone. We made the tough decision, as did some of our commercial customers, to reduce frequency going from seven days to five days with two of our daily newspapers. In addition, some of our TMC publications were reduced or eliminated. This naturally created additional capacity on our press. The addition of the SCNI publications should return our production closer to full capacity.
Is there still going to be room for future growth in your printing/mailroom operations?
Crow: We do more than 82 print jobs per week. While this keeps us busy, we will still have room for selective growth going forward.
How will the transportation aspect of printing SCNI work with trucking, delivery and pick-up?
Crow: We will deliver their products on our trucks to them.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Crow: We understand our customers have options on all the services we provide and take a great deal of pride that they have entrusted us with critical aspects of their operation. Value and quality are especially important in our industry today. Our team works hard to deliver on these goals each and every day.
Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at email@example.com.