Smith: ‘Consider a print co-op’

Apr 3, 2012

Editor’s Note: In February 2011, Publishers’ Auxiliary published a story about four Georgia weekly publishers that formed a printing co-op to serve their seven newspapers and others. A year later, we revisited the co-op to find out how things are going. Here is Part 1 of their success story.


The sky’s the limit for four weekly newspaper publishers in Georgia.

Although many media companies have been crying the blues in the 21st century, as technology forces a sea change in the way newspapers do business, the Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative has reinforced its marriage to its print products, and is helping other newspapers in their area stay married to newsprint, too.

“Community newspapers are here to stay,” said A. Mark Smith Sr., president of the co-op and chief executive officer of Smith Communications Inc. headquartered in Eatonton, GA.

Smith Communications has published the 152-year-old Eatonton (GA) Messenger since 1958.

The company also publishes the Lake Oconee News along with five magazines. All together the company’s publications reach more than 45,000 readers each week.

Last year, Smith grew weary of the pressroom consolidations and shutdowns that affected his publications. He, along with other newspapers like his, has depended on outside operations to print and deliver his products.

“We wanted to control our destiny, and we wanted to make sure we always knew where we would be printed,” Smith said. “We started this little Georgia printing co-op, and this time last year, we were printing my three papers and papers owned by my three partners, seven papers total until the middle of 2011.”

Today, the MGPC co-op prints, on average, 25-30 newspapers per week on a 30-year old Flexographic press leased from The McClatchy Co., which owns two daily newspapers in Georgia: The Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, and The Telegraph in Macon, where the press is housed.

In one recent week alone, the co-op printed 32 newspapers.

Publishers’ Auxiliary showcased the co-op’s humble beginnings in February 2011.

What a difference a year makes.

Smith, and other publishers who had contracted with the Macon Telegraph for printing, followed McClatchy’s decision to shut down the Macon press when it shifted its printing to Columbus, GA. But when McClatchy announced it was again consolidating its printing to its Atlanta facility, they started worrying.

A little more than a year ago, Smith reached an agreement with Macon Telegraph Publisher George McCanless to lease the newspaper’s closed printing facility and bring it back to life.

Josh Lurie, publisher of the Jones County News; Walter and Laura Geiger, publishers of the Herald Gazette in Barnesville, and the Journal-Reporter in Zebulon; and Will Davis, publisher of the Monroe County Reporter, eagerly jumped on board and joined Smith’s printing venture.

The old flexographic had been mothballed for 18 months and required considerable refurbishing.

As luck would have it, former plant manager, Butch Fowler, who started his printing career on that very same flexographic, and had recently been laid off from the Columbus printing operation when it moved to Atlanta, was available to join the co-op as its general manager.

Fowler brought with him other key employees who spent three months getting the press back into shape, and the co-op has since hired others who had previously worked at the Macon plant.

Today, the co-op employs up to 30 people.

The first flexographic printer was manufactured in Liverpool, England in 1890, according to The process involves using a water-based ink that dries easily and is environmentally friendly. Flexography is known for its brilliant four-color process printing.

The press is huge, standing 40-feet tall and 60 feet long.

In addition to leasing the press and its facilities, MGPC purchases plates, ink, and other supplies from McClatchy, including up to two truckloads of newsprint a week.

“We feel it is a win-win situation for us and McClatchy,” Smith said.

Scheduling the press for its various jobs is critical.

Although the equipment can handle large press runs, and has a large capacity, papers cannot be printed at the same time.

The newspapers on the co-op’s client list are weeklies, with circulations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000. The co-op also handles its clients’ inserts, which range from 14 to 17 a week and are delivered directly to the printing facility. Each client newspaper has a designated corral at the printing facility for insert storage. Insertion orders and other publishing details are handled separately for each newspaper, too.

Currently it is running at about a 60 percent capacity.

Customer service and ease of operation is one key to the co-op’s success, Smith said.

“Many newspapers use commercial printers to print their products, but our advantage is that we are publishers ourselves and we know what the customer wants,” he said. “This gives us credibility because the publishers know they are talking to someone who knows the business and can identify with their needs.”

But their service does not stop with printing.

On the pre-press side, co-op employees help with their clients’ set up, making sure their mechanical details are correct.

“We make sure the computer settings are correct, the photos are clear and bright,” Smith said. “We do this at no additional charge.”

After printing, the co-op labels and bags up newspapers for mailing, drops them off at designated post offices and delivers the rest to their client newspapers. MGPC contracts with a trucking company and the charges are included in printing contracts.

Client newspapers are clustered around the Macon plant—within a two-hour drive.

“We settled on two hours because that seemed like a reasonable time frame,” Smith said. “Newspapers have used central printing facilities over the years, but not as aggressively as we are running this type of operation, where we go after a lot of newspapers and a lot of volume.”

As aggressive as Smith and his partners are, even they were not prepared for the volume of printing jobs they have attracted.

And this is their biggest reward.

“My early expectations for business the first year was around $1.5 million,” Smith said. “We are actually grossing more than $2 million.”

The partners’ goal was to become profitable in the second or third year, but the co-op exceeded those expectations.

Now, they have their eyes on daily newspapers, and would like to add new equipment for printing niche publications and tabloids. The flexographic is limited to a single web width.

“This idea is very portable,” Smith said. “All newspapers should look at forming co-ops.”

Even though Smith retired from Morris Communications in 2003, he has not settled into a retirement lifestyle. In addition to running the co-op, he runs his family newspaper, including an in-house ad agency.

“There’s no such thing as retirement. I’d get bored, and this is a lot more fun,” he said.

He insists that any weekly newspaper has the tools to do what he is doing.

“You already have the tools and personnel with the knowledge to do most of it, and you can broker out what you can’t do in house,” he said.

Indeed, the sky’s the limit. © Teri Saylor 2012