"The Strange Survival of Ink" was the headline to a recent Economist article marveling that somehow, some way, "almost all newspapers have survived." This despite the recession, despite falling circulation, despite advertising revenues that according to the Newspaper Association of America have dropped 35 percent since early 2008. "For the most part," said the Economist, "newspapers have cut their way out of crisis," laying off staff, closing bureaus, combining operations. Then there's newsprint, a huge expense that newspapers have slashed by as much as 40 percent by "using less of the stuff, printing fewer words on smaller, thinner pages."
And, thanks to the loss of circulation, by printing fewer pages. In 2000 the Chicago Tribune reported printing 661,699 copies a day. Last year it printed 465,699. Looked at one way, this drop is appalling. Looked at another, it's a golden opportunity. Newspapers across the country with modern printing plants like the Tribune's Freedom Center are exploiting the extra capacity of their underused presses to maximize an important revenue stream.
Just last week the Tribune announced two new clients. It will now print this paper, the Chicago Reader. And it will print, distribute, and handle local ad sales for the Onion. "Printing the Reader is very exciting for us because it's another larger publication that fits nicely within our capacity and our capabilities and it's another commercial client in the mix," said Becky Brubaker, the Tribune's senior vice president of manufacturing and distribution.
The Tribune brass got so excited they forgot to ask the Reader brass if they wanted in on the press release. That's OK. For the Reader, a printing contract is just a printing contract, if a good one. The price is presumably right, though Reader publisher Alison Draper declines to reveal it; and as she puts it, "we'll have our eyes on the product as it comes off the press." That hasn't been possible since late 2007, when new parent company Creative Loafing moved printing from Newsweb on Fullerton and Clybourn to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But from the Trib's point of view, the contract's one more step down the yellow brick road to local hegemony. I asked the Trib what other titles the Freedom Center prints and got this list: Barron's, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Investor's Business Daily. And the Tribune itself, of course, and RedEye. Aside from the Reader, every newspaper the Tribune prints it also delivers, at least in part. And it delivers far more. That long list of beholden papers begins with the rival Sun–Times and the various properties of Sun-Times Media, including Pioneer Press, the Daily SouthtownStar, and the Post-Tribune.
What we see at the Freedom Center is the way of the world. Papers across the country are shutting down presses they no longer need, many jobbing out their printing in its entirety, others taking on those jobs. For instance, two years ago the Boston Globe closed a suburban printing plant yet was able to take over the printing of papers in Brockton and Quincy, Massachusetts. Sun-Times Media, or its constituent parts, used to own five printing plants; today there's only the one on Ashland Avenue, and because it's not big enough to handle everybody, the Pioneer Press papers are printed by the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee. The trade publication News & Tech recently ran a list of papers that had closed production plants since 2004 or were closing them now. Printed out, the list ran to six and a half pages.
This just in, from the Business Journal of Austin, Texas: The Austin American-Statesman, in a "feverish hunt for revenue and cost-cutting measures," is now exploiting its "mighty printing power to crank out dozens of other newspapers—all while trimming the number of jobs by more than 20 percent since 2008."
In the new order, papers like the Reader save, and papers like the Tribune and American-Statesman get while the getting's good—which won't be forever if print circulation keeps dropping. But for now, what's not to like?
Well, as A.J. Leibling once said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." When the Tribune owns not only its own, but also the Reader's, the Onion's, the New York Times's, and the Wall Street Journal's—we can worry about too much freedom in too few hands (or, at the very least, about a fire that in 20 minutes could transform journalism in Chicago as we know it).
There's another danger—of businesses making the same mistake some people do, meeting other papers' needs as they neglect their own.
Daily circulation at the Tribune's sister Tribune Company paper, the Los Angeles Times, dropped from 1.1 million early in the decade to 657,000 in 2009. The result, the New York Times observed in a story this past January, was "enough excess printing capacity to be able to close secondary plants and take over printing for other publications." The Times closed its plant in the San Fernando Valley in 2005 and last year decided to close the one in Orange County. That would leave only the main plant, where in 2009 the Times began printing the regional edition of the Wall Street Journal.
The point of the New York Times article was that because of these moves the LA Times was moving the deadline for its front news section forward from 11 PM to 6 PM and relegating late-breaking news to an inside section. "Defying long-standing convention, a result will be that the Times's front page cannot have the newest material in the paper," wrote Richard Pérez-Peña. "The page could be more dated than the front pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are delivered to Los Angeles readers."
How's that working out? Last month the Orange County plant finally went dark. Five days later the Lakers won the NBA championship. Gadfly Ed Padgett, a Times pressman who's no fan of the paper's management, provided running commentary on his personal blog. Before the championship game he'd noted that the Times planned to run off an extra 50,000 copies of the victory edition if there was one; after the game he reported problems at the printing plant. "Before the newspaper shuttered the Orange County Production Facility, our supervisors would call for help from our brothers in Costa Mesa, which meant sending trucks and production down south," he blogged. "Today we have placed all our eggs in one basket." Thousands of subscribers got their papers late, and some were missing their sports section.
The morning after the game, Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein issued a statement apologizing to readers. The next day the Orange County plant reopened. Padgett blogged that too, and also: "I'm not certain how many subscribers have fled the Los Angeles Times over the fiasco yesterday, but the numbers will be revealed to the pressmen shortly as the amount of newspapers produced daily will most definitely decline deeply."
When Padgett blogged three days later, it was to report that the Times had just suspended him. But two days after that, he announced he had his job back.