To print or not to print: Outsourcing

Apr 12, 2017

By Ken Blum
Black Ink

Here are few questions for those who print their newspapers in-house—not with a large modern press, but a 40-year-old-or-so iron lady that can handle, say, 16 broadsheet pages per run. The press is used only for the single newspaper, plus perhaps a few other small newspapers the company owns, or smaller papers from other publishers.

The questions:

Is Old Betsy—your press—starting to lose her bearings?

Are some of her pages a bit fuzzy?

Is process color a major undertaking involving bundles upon bundles of waste and mediocre reproduction?

Do you know it’s going to take more than duct tape to keep her running? Do big-buck repairs loom?

In short, is it time to put Old Betsy in mothballs?

In most cases like this one, upgrading to a modern press is prohibitively expensive for small- to medium-sized community newspapers.

So the newspaper marches on, dealing with mediocre quality, waste and weekly this-or-that tweaks or repairs to Old Betsy’s aching innards.

Or, Old Betsy could be in relatively good health for her age, but the fact is she isn’t efficient and can’t produce the quality or color of her modern offspring.

So the next question is:

If you could print at a modern central plant that would do the job better and for less money, why not switch to an outside printer?

I’ve worked with so many publishers who just can’t bring themselves to make the big step.

Sometimes, there’s no other choice but to print in-house because there’s not another web press within a few hundred miles; or the ones that are close are using Old Betsy’s twins. No solution here.

Sometimes, there’s a conviction the staff would lose control over the printing process and deadlines.

Sometimes there’s an allegiance to longtime employees who would lose their jobs—dedicated pressmen and other part-time workers such as inserters who may be struggling retirees or developmentally disabled.

Sometimes, there’s the assumption that a quality outside printer is just too far away.

Sometimes, the only other nearby printer with a modern plant is a competitor, and the publisher would rather eat dirt than have his paper printed by a competitor.

Sometimes there’s the belief it would be much more expensive to outsource printing.

Let’s take a look at these concerns.

1. Losing control. Typically, the underlying dread stems from the staff’s inability to meet a deadline. The staff keeps pressmen standing around, wasting hours and payroll because Joe in the sports department is dawdling over a game story, or Jan in the ad department insists on getting a late 2x2 ad in the paper.

If this is the deadline culture at your company, it won’t work if the paper is printed elsewhere at a modern, busy plant. The printer likely is handling a schedule of pressruns timed to the minute. Miss a deadline, and expect the paper to be a day late.

But if you do outsource, you’ll likely find the “have to or else” factor will work wonders for meeting deadlines.

2. Staff reductions. There’s no easy way around this one, unless, for example, a pressman can be transferred to the circulation or composing department. A layoff hurts any publisher with half a heart almost as much as it hurts the person losing his or her job. But the fact is a newspaper is a business, and what takes priority—avoiding layoffs or the stability and survival of the newspaper?

3. Distance. In this day of centralized printing, “near” isn’t what near used to be. Near is the new far. It’s not uncommon for a central plant to print newspapers 100 hundred miles or more away. (Go to Canada, where a couple hundred miles is considered a walk to the corner drug store.) Often the printer delivers several newspapers loaded in the same truck traversing a long route, bringing down hauling costs.

4. Competitor prints the paper. This probably wouldn’t be the problem you fear. Usually, a newspaper that also operates a central printing operation separates the two. The printing operation wants your business and is loathe to allow anything (i.e. someone from its company inspecting your uploads for ad leads) that would jeopardize the relationship with a printing client.

And there are certainly precedents. Many major dailies have been able to survive by contracting with a competitor for printing. Examples include the Dallas Morning News printing the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, or the Tampa Bay Times now printing the Tampa Tribune.

5. More expensive. Of course, I can’t predict what quote a given paper will receive from an outside printer, but I can say that out of my client papers that decided to shut down their presses and outsource, four of five saved money by outsourcing as compared to operating their own press—and often significant money—20 percent to 30 percent less.

Plus, print quality improved significantly. Color was far less expensive and far-far-far better quality. The headaches associated with operating a press were eliminated, so management was free to focus more on improving advertising sales, circulation numbers and content.

In some cases the quotes were so low, I wondered how the central print operation could possibly afford to print a newspaper loaded with process color for so little. But keep in mind, a large print operation with modern equipment is set up for speed and efficiency. And in some areas of the country, competition for print clients is fierce, thus pencils are sharpened, a good reason to solicit several quotes if possible, and let each printer know you’re doing so.

So let’s say you’ve decided to at least investigate and solicit some quotes. Here are a few tips and thoughts to consider.

• Many printers are able to run process color on every page. This amenity is always set-up and ready to go on the press. In this case, ask the printer for a quote that includes color on every page—no separate charges for color, the service is included in the quote.

And keep in mind the ad revenue possibilities for every page in color, not to mention the sparkle it will add to the newspaper.

• Most large printers specializing in newspapers can do it all—inserting, bundling, postal labeling and even making drops to post offices. All you have to do is wait for the bundles for the office and newsstands to arrive. Once you uploaded the pages, the work was pretty much finished.

• If you switch from in-house printing to an outside printer, there’s a strong possibility you’ll have to switch to a smaller web width to accommodate the press. This is no easy task, and advice, training and support from the printer are essential. Also, you’ll need to prepare your readers for the change, stressing the positives—same news, more color pictures and ads, better quality, ease of handling.

And one final note: This column focused on the possibility of outsourcing printing for newspapers now printing in-house. Most hometown newspapers already use outside printers. In this case, make sure to solicit fresh bids every few years, always keeping in mind the importance of quality, need for color, services offered and level of support. © Ken Blum 2017


KEN BLUM is an adviser, specializing in improving the profitability and content of community newspapers. He is also a national senior associate for mergers and acquisitions of community newspapers at W.B. Grimes & Co. He puts out a free email newsletter “Black Inklings” that features nuts and bolts ways to improve revenue and profits at hometown newspapers. To subscribe to the newsletter, or contact Ken about his advising services or the pros and cons of selling your newspaper or buying a newspaper, email or phone 330-682-3416.