It was three years in the making, but an innovative press configuration that produces a compact, sectioned paper finally got its first customer this week.

Gannett's Cincinnati Enquirer will covert to the format a little over a year from now. It will simultaneously outsource its printing to the Columbus Dispatch, 100 miles away. The Dispatch itself will make the same conversion in early 2013.

As I wrote several months ago, the smaller format saves a lot on paper costs. Also, based on a prototype I saw, it paradoxically results in a print edition with more pages, more heft and better display opportunities for editorial content and ads.

But it is a radical change -- at pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from the incremental trims in page width and height that have been the norm for nearly a decade. Why would Gannett go first?

Several reasons:

  • Gannett has been more open than most American publishers in experimenting with smaller formats. When it needed to buy new presses for its Shreveport and Lafayette, Indiana papers, it switched them to the tall and narrow Berliner format, successfully by the company's account.
  • Savvy cost control has always been one of Gannett's selling points to Wall Street. As Gannett Blog's Jim Hopkins wrote, this is a fit with a bunch of other marketing and downsizing initiatives the company has unveiled this year.
  • Cincinnati is on the leading edge of the company's makeover to a more digital mix of products. Put another way, Gannett has been willing to cut way back on staff and newshole in the Enquirer's print edition, and more of that is in the offing given weak ad revenue results so far this year.
  • That leaves the Enquirer a perfect match to the system's selling point of bulking up flimsy broadsheets on light advertising days.
  • Gannett was able to combine the format change with outsourcing printing and can then sell the Enquirer's presses. The trend for several years now, especially among the larger chains, has been either to take on other newspaper printing contracts (as the Dispatch is doing) or to exit the printing business and outsource.

Columbus will be retrofitting its existing presses to a so-called three-around configuration offered by Pressline Services. A single sheet passes through the presses three times rather than the usual two times. That results in a sectioned paper with lots of color availability, about the size of a typical tabloid but not as squarish in shape.

Jim Gore of Pressline had commented in our earlier interview that many potential clients "want to go second," but finding a first mover had proved unexpectedly hard.

Gore told me Tuesday he has one prospect "only 30 to 45 days behind" the Enquirer and Dispatch in planning a conversion. He is hopeful others will follow, well before the compact versions of the two papers hit the streets.

Gannett and the Dispatch said that the prototypes had been tested extensively in focus groups with readers and got a good reception.  Another part of the planning phase has been to give advertisers a look.

The changeover creates a bit of a pricing dilemma since a full-page or large fractional ad unit is just as dominant but not as big. Part of Gore's pitch is that the switch creates better display opportunities for advertisers to get their messages noticed.

The pace of adoption may be a test of whether wait-and-watch continues to be the industry norm or whether Gannett will be the lead cow. Of course, investing in an expensive retrofit makes sense only for companies that believe print's life expectancy spans at least a decade or more, and are willing to put money where their mouths are.