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Wednesday, April 30,2014

Stop the presses

Gannett’s decision to shut down its 20-year-old printing plant in Delta Township is a blow for the 103 employees who produce the State Journal and other papers

by Mickey Hirten
It was a very sad announcement from the Lansing State Journal Tuesday that it plans to close its production plant in Delta Township.

The move was not unexpected. Gannett Co. Inc. is shedding printing plants throughout the country. The company, which now derives significant revenue from television stations, wants its community newspapers to focus solely on selling ads and producing local news and information. It wants newspapers like the Lansing State Journal out of the businesses of production, delivery and circulation, even the choice of national and international news articles. Gannett established a separate business, Gannett Publishing Services, to orchestrate its print site closings.

Of little concern — make that, no concern — is the jobs of skilled and unskilled workers who create a community newspaper. According to the LSJ, the move will eliminate 27 full-time and 76 part-time jobs. The shutdown of the Delta plant will occur over several months and be completed by late July. The newspaper will be printed by Advanced Central Services, which is better identified as the Walker, Michigan, print facility for the Grand Rapids Press and other MLive Media Group newspapers. It is about 75 miles from downtown Lansing, nestled nicely in the Western Michigan snowbelt. Advanced Central Services has been pushing Gannett for years to let it handle production.

The closing is just another step in the transformation of newspapers and, for the LSJ, severs its manufacturing roots. The power of the press has a double meaning. For me, a printing press is a mesmerizing piece of engineering: large, loud and romantic in a 20th century way. Seeing what I’ve cobbled together on a sterile computer, or in earlier days, a typewriter, transformed on a printing press into something real, reproduced many thousands of times, never lost its allure.

The LSJ, in a web article announcing the change, said delivery times will not be affected. But the news content will suffer, especially coverage of late night sports. The newspaper now prints at about 1 a.m., which is unusually late these days for a morning newspaper. To account for the travel time from Walker to Lansing, the LSJ will need to close its edition earlier, perhaps as early as 11 p.m. during the week. Deadlines for the Sunday paper will be even tighter.

Decisions like this are forced on local newspapers. The LSJ’s president and publisher, Brian Priester, fought against the move as best he could. But the imperative to shed printing operations had too much momentum. Gannett has been doing this for years. Its largest Ohio newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, is published in Columbus, 106 miles away. The company’s New York suburban newspapers are published across the Hudson River in Rockaway Township, New Jersey, a site that also prints the Poughkeepsie Journal, located 90 miles away. Michigan newspapers like the Battle Creek Inquirer and the Port Huron Press, both owned by Gannett, are printed at the LSJ plant. Their press operations were eliminated in an earlier round of consolidations. They, too, will be printed in Walker.

The negotiations between Gannett and Advanced to print the LSJ and other newspapers vexed publisher Priester. The LSJ and other Gannett news operations in Michigan like the Detroit Free Press, Grand Rapids TV station WZZM and the partnership that oversees business operations for both Detroit newspapers are obsessed with MLive’s digital strength. The website is tightly integrated with the company’s eight newspapers.

Priester has rightly questioned the rationale of strengthening MLive’s Michigan operation with a fat production contract, while Gannett’s Michigan Group competes against MLive in the emerging and competitive digital marketplace. But cost cutting trumps this argument.

In its 2013 annual report, Gannett crowed about its printing operation, saying it “reduced annualized distribution costs, production costs and customer call center costs by over $30 million as a result of automation and other efficiency efforts.”

And one final LSJ note. Advertising Director Stacia King is leaving for Gannett’s Jackson, Miss., newspaper where she will work for former LSJ publisher Leslie Hurst. I worked closely with Stacia while editor of the LSJ and recognize that her departure is a loss for the newspaper and the community. She was a strong supporter of the news department and certainly righted a wobbly advertising department. I wish her well. She will work at a site under the overall control of another former LSJ publisher, Michael Kane.

(Mickey Hirten is the former executive editor of the Lansing State Journal. His email is mickey@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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