The benefit of economies of scale

The faster it runs, the more a press reduces the cost per copy.


Imagine standing in a field at midnight. You can barely see the outline of a low, long building before you, but your eyes don’t linger on its shadows, for at its center, a window arches three stories high, brilliantly lit from within, and under that light stands the first tower of a printing press, a fire-engine red behemoth.

Now imagine you’re inside the building, in the pressroom. The reinforced concrete foundation under your feet is four feet thick, resting on steel pilings driven into bedrock, isolated from the rest of the building — all to deaden vibration. The cinder-block walls around you are stuffed with insulation to deaden sound. The air you’re breathing is cooled, its humidity level controlled, and it’s filtered to remove airborne ink.

A bell rings a warning — the press run begins — you feel the heavy sounds of leviathan machinery gathering speed — and as the noise grows your eyes widen as you stare at the pages whipping by.

The power of the press, the power of the words it carries—man, it’s romantic. Still.

Not the romantic type? Well, even a frigid accountant would get excited over the economies of scale achieved by a running press.

When The Portland Newspapers opened its new production plant in 1989, I was working in the promotion department and was asked to create a special section for company employees. With the help of our department’s graphic artist, I was to explain how the plant and its $15 million Goss Flexoliner presses would work. The section would be distributed on the day the company had set aside for the staff and their families to tour the new plant.

A new press
South Portland, Maine: The author (at left) greets visitors touring the new plant’s pressroom.

It was a fun assignment; I learned a lot. Most germane to this post, though, is the fact that the new press could produce 70,000 copies an hour.

The cost of putting one edition of a newspaper together—of selling the ad space, reporting and writing the stories, laying it all out—that cost stops going up the moment the edition is ready for the press.

From that point on, the incremental cost per copy begins to go down as the press speeds up. With the exception of paper, ink and power, it costs the same to create 10 copies as it does 100,000. The press spreads the cost of content creation over as many copies as can be sold. The larger the print run, the cheaper each individual copy is to produce. The more papers sold, the more attractive the newspaper is to advertisers. A faster press creates the potential for more revenue at lower per-unit-cost.

A new press
South Portland, Maine: The author points out the insulated walls.

When my husband retired, the sports staff of the paper where he’d spent the last 17 years of his career asked him to relate his funniest moment. He wrote:

“The night I drove back to the paper at 2 a.m. to try to stop the presses because I woke up out of sound sleep realizing we’d made a mistake. I was too late. The press crew thought it was hilarious. Little children did not die.”

(The last sentence was a favorite saying, used to reset one’s perspective.)

Of course, had the paper been a digital-only publication, my husband could have walked to the study, turned on the computer, logged in and edited the page. One must admit that web servers achieve awesome economies of scale and reduce distribution costs to nearly zero.

Still, one cannot deny that a well-run press also produces economies of scale — and is romantic, to boot.

The benefit of one platform

Newspaper design is an advanced art.

The traditional daily is designed for one medium — print.

Which isn’t as simple as one might think.

A well designed paper is easy to read. Certain elements are anchored — readers know where to find them. All elements are clearly delineated.

On every page, the design tells the reader which stories are most important, and the most important stories in the paper have multiple entry points (graphics, photos, nugget boxes).

The design is consistent throughout. Section fronts can be wildly creative, but every page in the paper looks to be part of the whole.

The design responds to the expectations of its readers, exploits the capabilities of the paper’s press and production process, and is enforced through use of an in-house stylebook.

When the Portland (Maine) Press Herald began its redesign process in 1989, it was already in the midst of a three-year news improvement program that would culminate in the activation of its new $43 million printing plant.

The redesign began with the formation of a news committee. It included the paper’s director of market research. Design consultant Alan Jacobson was hired to keep the process on track.

Warren Watson, managing editor/operations, later explained the process in an article in The Journal of the Society of Newspaper Design. “Research had to be the first key step in a redesign,” he wrote. The committee stayed in touch with the paper’s market “every step of the way.”

The  group followed a seven-step plan: organization, research (including community focus groups) and goal-setting, which led to prototype, format-writing, implementation and a design stylebook.

The process began in September 1989. The redesign was launched in August 1990.

(I was working in the promotion department, and it was a pleasure to help introduce the paper’s new look to our readers. As Watson said, the design featured “the 5Cs: clean, complete, clear, colorful and compelling.”)

So. Not easy nor cheap, creating a well designed paper. But much, much easier than trying to redesign news content so that it’s presented properly on mobile phones, tablets, laptops and desktop monitors, using static content, dynamically generated content, podcasts, video and soon, 3-D, each platform and medium with its own design requirements and, one might, argue, audience.

The benefit of a tangible product

Traditional newspapers are manufacturers, creating a new version of their product every day.

A reader’s comment brought this benefit to mind. She wrote, “A rattling, folding, ink-staining actual paper in hand is wonderful, especially in the a.m.”

The traditional daily newspaper is a tangible product, and that, in turn, produces all sorts of benefits:

  • The reader can pick it up, put it down and pick it up again (it’s portable).
  • It is a patient guest, awaiting the reader’s attention. It doesn’t change, and it doesn’t go away until the reader decides it’s ready for the recycle bin, the wood stove or the bottom of the birdcage (it’s permanent).
  • It can easily be saved for posterity, with the assurance that future generations will be able to read it as easily as its original owner (it can be cached).
  • The reader can share it, can cut favorite pictures or articles out and post them in a public place, or take the day’s edition to the coffee shop and leave it there, the crossword puzzle partially completed, a gift to be finished by a stranger (it’s shareable).
  • It continues to display advertisers’ messages in the reader’s home as long as that reader remains interested in the news content of the paper (the ads are sticky).
  • It gives the newspaper’s staff a certain satisfaction, the joy of being able to pick up and read their daily creation.
  • It requires an investment in equipment and supplies (a press, newsprint, ink, delivery trucks, advertising and newsroom computer systems, etc.), the production of which creates thousands of jobs in distant forests and manufacturing centers (supply chain investment).
  • That same investment creates property tax revenue for communities and/or states that tax such things and are lucky enough to host a local daily, or one of its suppliers (tax revenue).
  • In the local community, a daily employs many people to run the press and distribute that tangible product seven days a week (jobs).