By Ken Sturtz
The move reflects a growing national trend in the industry. It comes after more than a century of the newspaper being printed locally.
The steel and concrete building rises six stories above North Salina Street, the gleaming glass façade greeting passing motorists on the elevated highways as they head into downtown.
Inside the cavernous press hall sits a 750-ton, $25 million printing press that was once one of the most modern in the business, capable of churning out 70,000 copies of The Post-Standard an hour. Seven days a week trucks hauled away newspapers destined for stores and paper boxes across Central New York.
But after more than a century of being printed in Syracuse, the owners of The Post-Standard announced earlier this year that local printing of the newspaper would cease in August with production moving to an affiliated facility 250 miles away in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The newspaper will still be printed seven days a week and home delivery will continue on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Tim Kennedy, a regional president for Advance Local, said at the time of the announcement. The newspaper will be available at retail locations on days when home delivery isn’t available and the look and content won’t change.
The 20 full-time and 18 part-time workers who run the press will be offered other jobs. Those who decide to leave will be offered severance.
Advance Media New York, which owns The Post-Standard and operates Syracuse.com and NYup.com, is a legal affiliate of Advance Local.
The billionaire Newhouse family owns Advance Local, which is the publisher of nine digital news websites and 24 affiliated local newspapers across the country. The press in Harrisburg is owned by Advance and prints The Patriot-News. The facility underwent a $3.6 million expansion in 2015 to allow it to take on more customers.
Out of the printing business
The economics driving the outsourcing and consolidation of newspaper printing operations is not new: advertising revenue and subscription numbers have been shrinking for years as production costs have increased.
“This has been brewing for a little bit, but it’s really accelerated a lot in the last couple years,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media organization. “It’s an expense that can be drastically pared down if you contract out as opposed to having your own employees do it.”
It’s not just the expense of staffing, running and maintaining the presses that have encouraged many newspapers to get out of the printing business.
Distribution has also gotten more difficult. As circulation has decreased, fewer newspapers are delivered to any given area, which makes it harder to create routes that one person can cover, Edmonds said.
Newspaper delivery jobs have traditionally been difficult to fill, with many people treating them as second jobs. In such a tight labor market the prospect of getting up in the middle of the night for a part-time job is especially unappealing.
As newspapers have increasingly focused on expanding their digital operations they’ve faced the decision of whether they want to remain in the printing business or get out, Edmonds said. Those that stay typically take on more printing business.
For example, Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. with more than 200 dailies, has remained in the printing business, consolidating printing to hubs located at its largest printing facilities and closing others. The chain has picked up printing work from competitors.
While Advance’s decision to scuttle its printing operation in Syracuse isn’t altogether surprising, it is a remarkable turnabout from just two decades ago.
In the early 2000s The Post-Standard was still printed on a press in use since the newspaper moved to its Clinton Square building in 1970. The old press had been designed primarily for black ink, but was upgraded to print some color. The new press was shipped from Switzerland and a new press hall was constructed on the existing building. The project cost $40 million.
By 2002, printing had switched completely to the new press, which could print 40 color pages and boasted of printing ads, photos and graphics much brighter and sharper.
A decade later the company announced it was reducing its workforce, cutting home delivery to three days a week and investing in its digital operations. In 2013, its advertising and news staffs moved into a smaller leased office space.
In 2017, Advance sold the building to VIP Structures, which leased back the printing facility. The lease is set to expire at the end of the year, Kennedy said, which was a major factor in the decision to relocate production.
‘Print is not dead’
“It’s sad to hear that Advance has made that decision, but it makes perfect business sense,” said Alec Johnson, editor and publisher of The Watertown Daily Times. “Printing presses are extremely expensive to run; it takes talented staff, a lot of maintenance and when things get older it takes a lot more maintenance.”
The family-owned Johnson Newspapers Corp. owns The Times as well as newspapers throughout the North Country and in the Hudson Valley and Western New York. Johnson said that while it’s increasingly common for newspapers of all sizes to outsource printing, his family’s company has doubled down on its printing business.
“As a publisher one of the most important things that we can do is remind people that print is not dead,” Johnson said, noting that print products remain popular with a large segment of their readers and offer opportunities for deeper news coverage.
The company maintains printing presses in Watertown and in Massena. In the past it had printing facilities in Malone, Ogdensburg, the Hudson Valley and Western New York, but they’ve been consolidated. The Watertown press was installed in 1986 and prints standard newspapers such as The Times and, starting in 2019, the company’s newspapers in the Hudson Valley and Western New York. The Massena press was installed in 2002 and is smaller but capable of printing different sizes.
“Scale is critical,” Johnson said. “One of the most important things we can do with the printing press is print and keep it running.”
That became an issue for Advance, which in 2014 still printed seven publications in Syracuse aside from The Post-Standard. Now the press does printing for just one daily publication and two smaller non-daily publications.
Since it’s no longer economically viable for many smaller publications to have their own printing press, Johnson said his family’s company has picked up more outside printing business in recent years. The company has more than 50 customers at its Massena plant, including many community and college newspapers.
As the number of commercial printers has decreased, the company has picked up printing contracts from farther away. For example, it now prints the CNY Business Journal, The Catholic Sun and student newspapers for SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.
Local News Inc. — which in addition to Oswego County Business publishes a healthcare newspaper and a senior-themed magazine — contracted its printing with the Scotsman Press in Syracuse until the company closed in 2014. Its magazines are now produced by Dual Print & Mail in Buffalo and its newspapers are printed by Bayard Printing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
While there are obvious cost-saving advantages to outsourcing printing, it raises other issues that need to be addressed, said Jeff Weigand, publisher of the Oswego County Media Group, which prints The Palladium-Times and The Valley News.
“When people outsource it doesn’t just affect printing,” he said. “There’s a lot to think about if you are going to outsource; you don’t just flip a switch.”
Distribution is a possible concern. Newspapers want their print product on doorsteps and at retail outlets early in the morning and when they outsource printing they typically have to push deadlines back to get the papers in time, Edmonds said. Newspaper deadlines have generally gotten earlier over time, which means the content tends not to be quite as new.
The fact that The Post-Standard will be trucked to Syracuse could force deadlines to be pushed back earlier during winter, when the threat of inclement weather is significant, Weigand said.
“Are they going to be able to hold the sports page for that local high school football game or that local late-night Syracuse basketball game?” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that any longer.”
Flexibility to push deadlines
The Oswego County Media Group is owned by the Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group, which publishes more than 70 community newspapers in six states.
As recently as 2008, The Palladium-Times had outsourced printing. When Sample bought the newspaper, it refurbished the existing 1974 press that was on site and began printing in Oswego. In addition to The Palladium-Times and The Valley News, the company also prints the Oswego County Advertiser. One full-time employee and one part-time worker run the press five days a week. Four or five people do all the advertising inserts by hand.
Weigand said printing in-house gives him the flexibility to push deadlines back for important stories. On Election Day, for example, they’ll hold the front page of the newspaper hours longer than usual so there’s time to include key election results.
But with a printing press that’s a half-century old, breakdowns become harder and harder to repair. A couple months ago a part broke. The part had been discontinued in 1993, so Weigand scoured the internet for a replacement. He found the part on eBay in Germany and bought two.
“So, there is going to be a time where I’m not going to be able to get something,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to consider outsourcing my printing at some point.” ϖ