Why Gannett is first to try the new, three-around compact newspaper format

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.

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  • http://revitadermsite.com/ RevitaDerm

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the coments, gentlemen.

    Dave:  You reinforce a point I was trying to make that this is a more graceful shape than that of the many papers that have been shaved and shaved some more.  Better heft too.

    Cecil:  I respect your viewpoint and have taken more than a shot or two at Gannett and others for underinvesting in reporting and news space.  I don’t think this is an either or proposition, however. If the capital expenditure pays for itself in a couple of years, and the new format goes over well with readers and advertisers, that could allow more investment in the newsroom.  

    Jim:  I defer to you on all matters technical.  Perhaps better to say that a cylinder prints three sheets rather than two (as Pressline’s own materials have it.  I certainly miss the work that you, Mark, Jen, Joe and the rest of the gang did when E & P was still a must-read report on industry news.

    Rick

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dave-Knepper/1295716831 Dave Knepper

    The new 3-around printing process allows a return to the pleasing shape newspapers enjoyed before the last decade of their becoming skinnier and skinnier.

    The Columbus Dispatch’s current broadsheet dimensions of 11.5 by 22 inches make for a tall, skinny page. Half-pages are squares. Quarter pages are too tall. The 1:1.9130 width/height ratio forces the product to take on a garish shape.

    After their conversion to 3-around, the new Dispatch is planned at 10.5 by 14.6 inches, a more pleasing 1:1.3905 ratio. Dimensions will be rational once more. The product will look smaller, not cheaper.

    Designers everywhere should rejoice. At long last, newspapers can be beautiful again!

  • http://twitter.com/CecilBrumley Cecil Glenn Brumley

    As usual, none of these efforts are aimed at putting more journalists on the beat, which is what would really serve the community. But then community service went out the window as soon as newspapers became part of corporations more committed to producing profits for shareholders. It’s a shame a lot of journalists will be out of a job, but one can only wish for the death of corporate newspaper chains and the rise of citizen journalism.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HC27IPMR3DZTIAN2Q7ININPUX4 Jim

    An interesting outsourcing arrangement, given the production format change.
    But it is hard to believe anyone is likely to purchase the Enquirer’s presses when capacity additions cannot be justified and even outlays for some upgrades are scarce.
    It also should be noted that a web passes once, not twice or three times as reported, through the press(es), regardless of how many pages there are around a printing plate’s circumference.
    Outsourcing and designs for three-around printing were topics covered with considerable interest and depth when Editor & Publisher’s magazine and website were based in New York.
    Am looking forward to similar coverage here, and to seeing the reformatted Enquirer next year.
    Jim Rosenberg
    former senior editor, E&P