As newspapers consolidate operations, weeklies work together to stay in print

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Oct 1, 2019

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

Despite having to find a new printer for his newspapers on short notice, Kirk Kern considers himself lucky.

Last July, Kern, the chief operating officer of Battle Born Media in Boulder City, Nevada, received a 30-day notice that the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City was cutting back its printing services. The Tribune had printed four of Battle Born’s six newspapers over the last decade. Battle Born’s other two newspapers are printed by Swift Communications in Carson City.

“The Salt Lake Tribune served all our needs with full–color capability, fast turnaround, reasonable prices and great customer service,” Kern said. While the distance from Salt Lake City to Battle Born’s newspapers in central Nevada seems daunting, the Tribune was able to deliver the printed newspapers to Battle

Born’s Ely Times, about 240 miles, in a manageable drive time of three-and-a-half hours on Highway 15.

Luckily, when Kern got the bad news, he already had two printing options on the table.

“One of the printers would have required us to change our deadline by a day, delaying our normal Thursday publication day until Friday,” he said. The other offer came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Ely Times’ previous publisher under different ownership.

The Review Journal, which had been courting Kern’s business for a month, won the contract. Delivery to Ely is the same distance as it was from Salt Lake City, but the route, along a two-lane road, takes about an hour longer.

The transition was not without challenges. With a different press comes a different web width. But Battle Born had purchased the four newspapers from the Review Journal more than a decade ago, and familiarity with the product helped smooth the transition.

“We had to change our page size, column width and ad sizes, but it wasn’t really a problem,” Kern said. Another Nevada newspaper, the High Desert Advocate in West Wendover, which also printed in Salt Lake City, transferred its printing to the Review-Journal as well as is piggybacking its delivery with the Battle Born papers to Ely.

“It turned out to be a win-win situation for all of us,” Kern said.

Small newspapers have long outsourced their printing to larger newspapers in their regions for savings, convenience and because they didn’t have the physical space or page count, circulation and frequency to keep a press busy.

Now, some are starting to suffer hardships that come with media consolidation and cutbacks, according to Tony Smithson, regional director of printing operations for Adams Publishing Group’s APG Printing Solutions in southern Wisconsin. Smithson, who writes a regular column for Publishers Auxiliary (Page 5), said the search for greater efficiency is driving larger newspapers to consolidate many of their operations, including printing. This puts extra pressure on press capacities, and smaller newspapers are starting to feel the pinch.

“Eventually presses age, and it’s getting harder to find anyone to run them or repair them when they break down,” he said. Press shutdowns put added pressure on regional printing capacities.

Last year, Adams Publishing Group bought the family-owned Bliss Communications, which had built a state-of-the art commercial printing and production facility in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2007 to print its two daily newspapers and a variety of weekly community newspapers from Chicago to northern Wisconsin.

Today, APG keeps the production facility busy, printing 120 newspapers.

As the hub of a regional newspaper group for Adams Publishing Group, Smithson’s operation in Janesville is directly responsible for the success of six daily newspapers, 13 weekly newspapers and 11 shoppers. His facility also serves approximately 100 other publications as a contract printer.

“In addition to our newspapers, I am fortunate to serve approximately 100 other publications as a contract printer. We face the challenges of a quickly changing industry daily, looking for efficiencies and creative solutions as we continue to get the newspapers on the street every day,” Smithson said.

Keeping presses running will be an ongoing challenge, Smithson said, due to the shrinking print product as the media industry moves toward digital publishing.

“It is a reality that circulation is declining. We print 10% more newspapers today than in the past, but we print the same number of copies,” he said.

The Janesville plant is engineered to print small community newspapers and is a welcome relief for its customers.

“It’s not efficient for large presses to print small community newspapers, and they are having a hard time finding printers to do small press runs,” he said. “We are engineered to print small papers.”

In Kansas, existing presses generally are serving the needs of their newspaper customers, but the Kansas Press Association has long urged its members to develop contingency plans to cover a variety of challenges, according to executive director Emily Bradbury.

“Being in Tornado Alley like our fellow press associations in the Midwest, we encourage our members to always have a backup plan in case of a natural disaster or press breakdown,” she said. “In some areas of the state, the closest printer may be hundreds of miles away, or even in another state.”

According to Bradbury, there are 21 printers in Kansas currently handling around 190 publications. The state has seen print consolidations over the past decade, including two in the last year.

“Luckily, our printers are meeting the demand and working with their customers to make any transition as easy as possible,” she said.

KPA president Travis Mounts is in a wait-and-see mode. He’s editor and part-owner of Times-Sentinel Newspapers in Cheney, Kansas, and has been involved in recent printing consolidations, which, so far, have not been disruptive. The Times-Sentinel publishes five newspapers and a variety of special sections.“Kansas newspapers have a level of uncertainty for the future, rather than immediate problems,” he said. “If we lose more presses, though, there will be a concern because there will not be enough capacity for all the newspapers. Or printing may become prohibitive for some because of cost or colliding deadlines.”
Mounts is worried that consolidation will eliminate printing options close to home for newspapers. Already, in Wichita, there are only three presses within a two-hour drive, he said.

In the early 2000s, Mounts printed his newspapers at the Wichita Eagle. But over time, The Wichita Eagle, along with the Topeka Capital Journal and the Lawrence Journal-World, have eliminated their printing operations and rely solely on the Kansas City Star. The communities the Times-Sentinel Newspapers cover are essentially bedroom communities for Wichita, and he relies on the Postal Service to deliver most of his newspapers, with racks and a small carrier force distributing monthly free distribution products.

He believes his newspapers’ long-term future depends on business from Wichita because that is where his readers work and shop.

“Our Main Street has fewer retail outlets, and fewer residents are in town during the workday, compared to how it used to be,” he said. “Our communities are growing, but the retail business doesn’t reflect that growth. Fast–food restaurants and national chains have replaced local businesses that traditionally supported local newspapers.”

He believes printing press challenges will push more and more publications online, and for now, while Mounts is still married to print, he continues to scrutinize what digital growth might look like for the small newspapers he publishes. He realizes that in the past, retailers thought they had to be in their local newspaper, but today, that thinking is skewing towards Facebook and other social media platforms.

“But Facebook posts only reach 10 to 15% of followers, and there’s no middle ground. They either take off and go viral or they go nowhere,” he said. “In print, readership is consistent. The number of readers who see our ads and stories is the same as last week and will be the same next week.”

He advises publishers who are thinking of changing their printers to do so now.

“What has hurt us over the years is being indecisive, and now is the time to be decisive. I’m not preaching doom and gloom, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

Smithson sees salvation through cooperation. He recognizes that while newspapers have always been good neighbors, they must be willing to make compromises and work together for the greater good as never before, piggybacking on each other’s print needs, even if that means adjusting page sizes, deadlines and delivery times.

“Printing newspapers used to be the coolest job ever, and the future relies on cooperation and compromise,” he said. “I can’t imagine the day when there will not be any printing at all, but publishers must work with each other to ensure this.”

Editor's note: This article was specially commissioned by the National Newspaper Association’s Publisher’s Auxiliary and the Nevada Press Association.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Contact her at 919-604-0288.