MANCHESTER, N.H. — Frank Brennan, night foreman in the New Hampshire Union Leader pressroom, has been with the company since 1974. In those years, he’s amassed a collection of historic editions, including the first paper printed at the new plant on William Loeb Drive in 1990.
On Sunday night, he added another edition to that collection — the last to be printed on a Union Leader press. The Tuesday editions rolled off a press in Dover, leased to a Portsmouth newspaper company that also prints the dailies for Nashua and Laconia.
“Newspapers large and small are making decisions similar to ours,” writes Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid in a recent column. “You either become a commercial hub, printing many titles, or you become a customer, as we are doing.”
The printing and packaging of newspapers is a labor-intensive and capital-intensive business that demands consolidation, given the new realities of newspaper publishing in the age of the Internet.
“Twenty years ago, we all wanted the biggest, fastest press to beat the competition,” said John Tabor, president and CEO of the Seacoast Media Group (SMG), which has emerged as the printing hub McQuaid alludes to. “Now we’re coming to the realization that printing is a manufacturing task, and it’s really better to concentrate our resources on what readers and advertisers want, digital expansion and things like that.”
In the age of consolidation, the company with the newest printing presses, the most modern mailroom equipment and automated processes is the most likely contender as printer.
With a new printing plant that opened at the Pease International Tradeport in 2007, financed by the Dow Jones Local Media Group that owns SMG, the Portsmouth-based publishing company now has roughly 170 printing clients. They include the Union Leader, Nashua Telegraph, Foster’s Daily Democrat, the Laconia Sun and of course the Portsmouth Herald and all the weekly newspapers affiliated with all those titles.
It’s a major shift in the state’s newspaper publishing scene as it existed just three years ago, before the Telegraph made the move in 2011. Like the Telegraph, the Union Leader was facing the prospect of having to invest millions to upgrade an outdated printing plant, with minimal prospects for attracting substantial commercial print contracts.
A creative solution
When the Union Leader went looking for alternatives, the Seacoast Media Group press in Portsmouth couldn’t accommodate another daily, especially not one with the page count and circulation of the statewide newspaper.
So a creative solution emerged from negotiations that involved SMG, the Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, where Publisher Patty Foster, a fifth-generation owner, was looking at a costly upgrade to her press and mailroom as well.
The Union Leader was looking for a print site, Foster’s wanted to upgrade its press, and SMG wanted to expand its printing operation. A deal was struck.
SMG agreed to lease the Foster’s printing plant and invest in upgraded facilities, all of which was made possible by attracting the Union Leader as an anchor client. Foster’s and the Union Leader would get out of the printing business, while SMG, now with printing plants in Dover and Portsmouth, could provide economies of scale that would benefit all the players.
The Dover printing plant went from 25 to 44 employees, some of which were hired from the Union Leader. But for most of the Union Leader’s full-time pressmen, packaging and related workers, a total of 33 individuals, the change meant layoffs. Part-timers in packaging were also affected.
The company reached agreements on severance packages with the unions representing the full-time workers and provided the proper notice to the state, given the size of the layoff, said Sharon Ciechon, vice president of human resources. Employees whose history with the newspaper in some cases goes back generations left the plant off East Industrial Park Drive for the last time Sunday night.
Employees like Frank Brennan, whose father was advertising director at the Union Leader for 35 years and whose mother delivered the paper in the 1950s; pressman Curt Bergeron, whose grandfather and father both worked in the pressroom; and Terry and Pat McGovern, whose dad also worked as a pressman.
“Of the eight of us on nights, five have fathers who were pressmen too,” said Brennan.
They represent a time when family threads ran through many parts of the Union Leader, and the company was as much a manufacturing and logistics operation as a source of information. That model is changed forever.
“We’re moving into a new era,” said Ciechon. “We have to look at everything differently.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services