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Rob Curley: Investment in new press is an investment in local journalism

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

From left, Levi Sleizer, Tay Glasgow and Max Rafferty, all pressmen, and Thomas Rylands, far right, of imPRESSions Worldside, examine the first edition of The Spokesman-Review printed on the Goss SSC Magnum press on  (JESSE TINSLEY)
From left, Levi Sleizer, Tay Glasgow and Max Rafferty, all pressmen, and Thomas Rylands, far right, of imPRESSions Worldside, examine the first edition of The Spokesman-Review printed on the Goss SSC Magnum press on (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Rob Curley The Spokesman-Review

Twenty years ago, if a newspaper announced it was going to build a new press, I would have rolled my eyes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I did. A couple of times.

A new press? In the age of the internet, iPhones and social media?

How quaint. Maybe we could deliver the papers on horseback.

As the technology got better and cheaper, another realization began to become clearer: When things become scarcer and scarcer, their intrinsic value goes up. No, I’m not talking about presses. But let’s pretend for a second that I am. How could something as old-school as ink on a deadwood become relevant again?

That’s almost as crazy as saying that new generations not only will start drinking coffee again, but they’d be willing to pay $6 or $7 for a cup of something that costs pennies to make. Or that people will start dressing like lumberjacks or embrace clothes from a century ago, or that people will start to think that beards back from the days of Abraham Lincoln were cool again.

Oh wait. All of that happened.

Still, a new press in 2020 seems even crazier than the idea that rockabilly music would make a comeback in the 1980s. That’s nuttier than naming a song “Stray Cat Strut.”

Which is an important point. Look at the history of innovation in this country. One thing becomes obvious: The things that are the most successful rarely happen where you think they might and are ideas that initially seem like real head-scratchers.

But a newspaper building a new press? Right now?

The idea is remarkably simple, but definitely all about execution.

It’s basically this: Owning a press right now is a terrible business … unless you own one of the last presses in a diverse and large geographic area – and that press operation is flexible enough to print everything from daily papers to high-end inserts, as well as slick glossy magazines and even possibly things like catalogs.

Owning that sort of press under those circumstances is actually a great business.

The problem is that most newspapers that still own their presses can’t actually do that range of printing. Traditional newspaper presses were built to do one thing: produce a single product as quickly as possible. However, when you couple a flexible press with the incredible amount of category-specific consolidation we’re seeing, along with all of pressrooms that we all see closing … then the opportunity really starts to reveal itself.

This new press facility for The Spokesman-Review isn’t so much about printing our actual newspaper as it is much more about what other products we could print for other companies – not just other news organizations – to help replace lost newspaper advertising revenue. All that being said, having your local newspaper printed on a state-of-the-art presses isn’t exactly a terrible side effect.

In the long run, we hope it’s a strategy that is whole lot less about just “surviving” and a whole lot more about “thriving.” Yes, it’s absolutely a gamble … just a well-reasoned gamble.

It’s also a living love note as to why local ownership is so damn important when it comes to community and regional news organizations. A longtime local newspaper owner can make decisions that might not pay off for a quarter-century, instead of making decisions based on the next fiscal quarter. Or making catastrophic decisions based upon immediate “shareholder value” that destroys any chance for local newspapers to be around for another century.

Or even just making decisions that are allowed to have a few years to mature and develop. We really don’t have anywhere near a quarter of a century to make this work. It needs to work fairly quickly. It’s just that “fairly quickly” is defined differently under local ownership than by a publicly held company. At this moment, five years is the kind of patience that hedge-fund-owned newspapers can’t even imagine. It’s also closer to the time we have to prove this can work.

The thing is, it is about so much more than just making sure the Sunday comics look great. This is about a radical plan aimed at helping a local newspaper continue to document the living history of it community.

For new generations. Who love coffee. And grow beards.

Fixing local newspapers is not going to be about cutting beloved features, or slashing the amount of pages published, or building a huge video department for social-media dollars that are never going to come, or laying off a whole bunch of your news staff.

You can’t cut your way to success and still have something meaningful that’s built to last. But the economics of this industry truly are both damning and daunting, and they have to be accounted for. Literally. Our accountants are pretty adamant about this.

The one thing that is clear to everyone is that newspapers CANNOT do it the way they’ve always done it. That’s what got us into trouble in the first place. You damn well better have a plan. And this is a plan. A real plan. Possibly even a good plan.

As counterintuitive as it might be, it’s a plan that also doubles down on print. And, no, I don’t think this could work everywhere. This isn’t a silver bullet for local newspapers.

But it absolutely could be a huge part of our newspaper’s future here in Spokane. The “good news” for a plan like this is that with the printing business in free fall, there is plenty of talent and inexpensive high-quality equipment available for a newspaper in Spokane, Washington, to go after.

So many other presses across the country have closed, and many more printers won’t survive because the risk of losing customers goes up every day. Which brings up a wild point: We are our own biggest customer, and we’ve upgraded our entire printing operation so that we can literally be one of the last presses standing.

So, we really did it. We installed new printing presses in 2020.

It feels just as wild as William H. Cowles buying out his biggest local competitor in 1894 to own the newly combined Spokesman-Review. That decision raised more than a few eyebrows back in the day, so maybe it really just shows that we’re in good company. As in historically significant.

Especially in this day and age – even before COVID-19. In many ways, this is a bigger commitment and gamble to local newspapering than any presses installed by publishers from previous generations.

Who would have thought 20 years ago that a new press would seem like such an innovative idea?

Certainly not this guy. But I’m more convinced now than ever.

Here’s to another century of local journalism. And let’s keep those presses running.

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