Then and now, printing plant a sign of the times

Richard Connor

In the summer of 1987, I took a friend to tour the Star-Telegram printing facility, just off Interstate 20, in Edgecliff Village. Built at a cost of $70 million and opened in the fall of 1986, it was right out of Star Wars. We had robots that delivered giant rolls of paper directly to the press without the touch of a human hand. Men worked in a separate room testing paper quality from our many newsprint suppliers. They wore white smocks. The press was shiny, massive and fast.

It had to be big and bold and beautiful. This was Texas, after all, and publishing companies were printing more than newspapers. They were minting money. My friend, the late Rusty Flack, was in the manufacturing business. He was from Pennsylvania but also had a plant in Saginaw. I had run the newspaper in his hometown before moving to Fort Worth to take over the Star-Telegram. I wanted to impress him. Impressed he was. Marveling at the modern building, state-of-the-art equipment and advanced technology, he oohed and aahed. “How long does it take to print a hundred thousand papers a day?” he asked. “Oh, only a couple of hours,” I answered proudly. Then he brought me up short.

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“What do you print on these machines the other 22 hours?” I fumbled and stumbled, mumbled some lame explanation about the hours of maintenance needed on the presses and then rolled out the standard industry excuse about the highly competitive world of commercial printing – a world in which we did not excel. “Crazy,” he said. Stupid, he meant. We were not maximizing the capabilities of our plant, equipment and manpower. If you count from that day, it means that I and the publishers who followed me at the Star-Telegram had 27 years to become smarter and create a printing and publishing center in Fort Worth. That would have avoided the loss of 275 jobs announced this week when the Star-Telegram reported it would shutter the plant, sell the real estate, and contract with the Dallas Morning News to print the paper at the News’ production facility in Plano.

Outsourcing a newspaper’s printing is commonplace these days. It saves money and creates production efficiencies. It also creates distribution challenges. Printing the Star-Telegram in Plano, then trucking it back to Tarrant and bordering counties is almost certain to result in earlier deadlines – which means delivering papers that are missing late sports scores and other late-breaking news. The outsourcing is also likely to result in later delivery times for home subscribers. If a daily newspaper is not on a doorstep or lawn by 6 a.m. these days it’s not likely to be read until evening, if at all. If you don’t believe me, rise from bed before 5 a.m. and head out to the local highways to see how many folks have already left the house and are driving to work.

So, the question is: Why? Why does the Fort Worth paper have to be printed 50 miles to the east, at the cost of nearly 300 jobs in Tarrant County? Two reasons: lack of foresight and creativity among Star-Telegram executives (me included); and big, fat newspaper profits back in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. From the beginning of my tenure in1986 until midway through the first decade of the 2000s under another publisher, the Star-Telegram recorded annual profits ranging from $30 million to a reported high one-year of $70 million. When you are making that kind of money you just keep digging in the same mine. You don’t prospect. There is little doubt in my mind that the Star-Telegram continues to be profitable at levels many businesses would love to have but its parent company, McClatchy, paid a premium in 2006 for what was then the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. The price, $4.5 billion, was not unrealistic for those times. But almost as soon as the deal closed, the newspaper business model began to change. Then came the economic crisis starting in 2008. All of a sudden, McClatchy had huge debt and lower profits from its newspapers. The company needs more and more money from its best properties, I suspect, and Fort Worth is one of them. The paper is not broke, by any means, but publicly held companies are judged by profitability. It’s as simple as that. I wince to admit this but despite making tens of millions during my days running the paper we had layoffs and cutbacks so that we could maintain or increase profits. The management at the Star-Telegram is simply playing by the rules of the public markets. It would be easy to take a wild swipe at this decision; but, for me, it would be hypocritical. Recognizing the harsh realities of today’s economy, unfortunately, does nothing to diminish the pain of the 275 persons being laid off. It is unlikely they will work in this business again and many of them have devoted a lifetime to it. Thinking back to the 1987 printing plant visit by my friend from Pennsylvania, one other event stands out along with his sage observation. We were printing a job for Dillard’s, our largest advertiser. I pulled a copy off the press and noticed a mistake. “Stop the press,” I told the foreman. “Throw all these papers away and start over once we correct the printing error.” That will cost us a lot of money, the foreman said. We stopped the press, fixed the mistake, and spent more money than we probably had to spend. We could have just apologized to Dillard’s for the mistake. But, then again, we had lots of money in those days.

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