As the search for cost savings redoubles, it is becoming more the rule than the exception that your hometown newspaper is no longer printed in your hometown.
Precise circulation figures are not available, but about 22 million households still get a daily and/or Sunday edition. With outsourced printing often as far as 150 to 180 miles away, that can mean substantially earlier deadlines. The evening city council meeting gets reported like a West Coast sports score — 36 hours late — if it gets reported at all.
Our friends at News & Tech, the printing trade publication, pulled together a list of outsourcing deals, nine announced just in the first two-and-a-half months of 2021 (see list below), and a much longer list spanning the last 15 years.
This year’s plant shutdowns include substantial metro papers — Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. As I reported last fall, McClatchy’s Kansas City Star has abandoned the state-of-the-art plant it opened in 2006 and moved printing to Gannett’s Des Moines Register, 200 miles distant.
John Hartman, an emeritus professor of journalism at Central Michigan University who has published two books about USA Today, does alt-weekly commentaries on The Columbus Dispatch, a Gannett paper now printed in Indianapolis, 175 miles away. The day after New Year’s he wrote:
How sad. The New York Times print deadline is now later than the local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch. If a sporting event or news item does not occur by 4 p.m., it will not be in the next day’s Dispatch. The Times’s deadline is early evening.
Meanwhile, the Dispatch runs more and more content from its sister newspaper, USA Today. Everybody knows that USA Today often rewrites news that breaks in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, then publishes it a day later. So when the Dispatch runs an article from USA Today, the news is not the usual two days old. It is three days old.
(It’s) evidence that the Dispatch is trying to kill the daily newspaper habit in Columbus.
The Dispatch printing moved again to a Gannett facility in Detroit in February.
I wouldn’t go as far as Hartman in suggesting that Gannett and other outsourcers are euthanizing daily print newspapers. If digital transformation comes first, though, the corollary is that the timeliness of print comes second. Gannett CEO Mike Reed has said as much in presentations this year on strategy for the nation’s largest newspaper company with 250-plus titles.
Of course, those who want timeliness have the option of going to the web or to e-replica editions, which can be expanded for a late sports story while still formatted like a once-a-day print product.
Here in Tampa Bay, the twice-a-week Tampa Bay Times print edition seems to be easing into what I would call magazine-style content. Unless there is an impeachment verdict or the like on a Saturday, Sunday’s print edition is for in-depth local stories.
Last Wednesday’s sports front highlighted roster-related pieces for the Lightning, Bucs and Rays (we have two champions and a World Series club, if you hadn’t heard). A late Lightning game, ending around midnight against the Dallas Stars, didn’t make it the next day, picked up instead in the e-edition. Neither did weekend games ending about 7 p.m.
The economics of outsourcing are a little tricky. Those who work the presses and bundle printed papers are laid off, resulting in permanent payroll savings. Of course, the contract to print elsewhere eats up some of the savings.
Equally attractive is the windfall of selling a building or a large tract of developable land, proceeds often running into the tens of millions. That money can drop to the bottom line or, as likely, be applied to tech infrastructure for digital.
Press buildings may have been combined in a downtown site with a headquarters office as in Kansas City, or be adjacent to an expressway as in New Orleans, where a buyer of the Times-Picayune property planned a multi-deck driving range.
Outsourcing print is proving especially attractive at Gannett, where its scale allows the benefit of playing the trend both ways. Gannett’s own expanded footprint since merging with GateHouse allows for a new wave of consolidation within the group’s 250 titles. It can also use extra capacity at outlets in Indianapolis, Des Moines and Lakeland, Florida, to get paid for printing papers outside the chain.
Gannett does not break out total savings from the print consolidation. However, Ashley Higgins, director of investor relations, told me that manufacturing and distribution represents $115 million over two years of the original $275 million target for total recurring “synergies.”
Real estate is treated separately, but a single sale in the right location generates plenty of cash. The printing and headquarters campus in Naples, Florida, for example, went for $28 million.
To give a sense of how widespread the outsourcing trend has become, here is News & Tech’s list for 2021:
- McClatchy’s (Raleigh) News & Observer and (Durham) Herald-Sun moved printing to a plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
- The Gannett-owned Jackson (Tennessee) Sun and (Memphis) Commercial Appeal moved to The (Jackson, Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger, also owned by Gannett.
- The Hearst-owned San Antonio Express-News moved production to the Houston Chronicle, also owned by Hearst.
- Forum Communications moved the printing of four publications in the Dakotas to its plant in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
- The family-owned Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, Iowa, moved to a commercial printer in Platteville, Wisconsin.
- Gannett’s Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon, will be printed in Vancouver, Washington.
- Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times is now being printed at Gannett’s Lakeland plant.
- Gannett will shift printing of its (Louisville) Courier-Journal to its plants in Indianapolis and Evansville, Indiana.
- Four Florida west coast papers — Gannett’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune, (Fort Myers) News-Press and Naples Daily News and McClatchy’s Bradenton Herald — will all be moved to the Gannett’s Treasure Coast plant on the other side of the state.
- The Missoulian, a Lee Enterprises’ paper in Montana, will be printed at Lee’s Helena plant starting Sunday.
News & Tech noted 19 such changes, most involving Gannett papers, in 2019, and dozens more dating back to 2006.
What to make of the trend? Tough times lead to the tough decision to move to print outsourcing. An earlier crest came during the 2009-2011 recession.
For some observers, each closing matches a death-of-newspapers narrative. It certainly marks an end of an era for the craft of printers and other plant employees, easily overlooked by reporters and editors who do their own work elsewhere.
The same applies to moves out of headquarters offices — though wasted space left over from the golden days of the business is clearly an unaffordable diseconomy now.
I would rather not compare newspapers to snakes, but in lieu of wringing hands, I do see shedding old skin that no longer fits not as a negative but as an essential step to the primarily digital present and future.
(Thanks to Mary Van Meter, editor-in-chief and publisher of News & Tech, for compiling a list of outsourcing moves from the publication’s archives.)
Correction: The Bradenton Herald is owned by McClatchy, not Gannett. In addition, the News & Observer and Herald-Sun moved from Garner, not to it. We also updated our description of John Hartman to better reflect his career.