by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
I’m writing this in a state of shock at the announcement The Buffalo News will no longer be printed in Buffalo.
Lee Enterprises, the paper’s parent company, reported Monday that it is outsourcing its printing and distribution operations to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in October. Some 160 employees will lose their jobs.
This is a punch to the gut.
The News is hardly alone in shuttering its printing plant. Down the Thruway in Rochester, the Democrat and Chronicle recently announced that it’s closing its print operation. The paper will be printed in New Jersey. New Jersey! The Syracuse Post-Standard is now printed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal is printed in some 220 miles away in Peoria, Illinois.
This mother of all outsourcing in Buffalo means Lee has stripped The News of most of the workforce it inherited when it bought the paper from Warren Buffett three years ago. The downsizing began under Buffett’s ownership and has gained speed under Lee.
A problem with newspaper delivery? You’ll speak to someone out of town. Place a classified ad? Ditto. And come June, the paper’s news pages will be designed by someone west of the Mississippi.
The News, back in the day, employed more than 1,000. That number will shrink, to — I don’t know, 150, maybe 200 — once the pressmen and other production workers are shown the door.
The Buffalo Newspaper Guild, whose members include what’s left of the newsroom, criticized the shifting of printing operations to Cleveland.
“We understand the challenges of the local news business and the need to grow the digital side of the business,” the union said in a statement. “Lee has, unfortunately, rolled out digital products, such as The Buffalo News website and mobile app, that have further hindered our progress to transition digitally.
“It’s past time for Lee to invest in, rather than further diminishing, The Buffalo News.”
Lee tried to put a brave face on the outsourcing in its announcement Monday.
“The change would not impact the journalism, content or home delivery of the publication,” reads the story.
Well, not exactly.
Printing the paper three hours away in Cleveland means earlier deadlines. One of my reporters, J. Dale Shoemaker, recalled that when his former paper in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, shipped its printing out of town, reporters had to file their stories by lunchtime to get them into the next day’s paper.
It’s too early to know what deadlines will be at The News. But the potential for trouble is obvious. What happens come election night? When the Bills play a later afternoon or night game?
No impact on home delivery? What are the chances trucks traveling I-90 between Cleveland and Buffalo during snowstorms will be delayed? Pretty good, I’d say. I mean, reliable delivery is a problem now, with the paper printed downtown.
The outsourcing is clearly a cost-cutting measure and there’s an argument to be made in favor of anything that helps the company starve off further cuts to the newsroom. I’m certainly not going to argue in favor of the status quo.
But I’ve got to wonder if the cost-cutting in Buffalo isn’t primarily for the purpose of shoring up the Lee chain and its other 76 newspapers.
Lee strong-armed the Buffalo Newspaper Guild out of its pension plan during contract negotiations in 2021 and used the proceeds to shore up its other retirement plans. Lee then put The News’ building on Washington and Scott streets up for sale and will pocket a tidy sum when the deal closes. The shuttering of the print and distribution operations will free up more real estate to put on the market.
It’s unlikely Lee has lost money on The News. The paper has probably been a cash cow for the struggling chain. At least to this point.
The result: Lee’s actions have likely expedited the decline of The News.
What’s left to cut?
Well, there’s always more journalists, as I detailed two weeks ago.
Next up may be cutting the number of days the paper is printed and/or delivered. It’s a trend in the industry.
The Tampa Bay Times prints just twice a week. The aforementioned Post-Standard in Syracuse and Plain Dealer in Cleveland still print seven days a week, but offer home delivery only three days a week.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock went cold turkey, eliminating its print edition altogether. To keep readers in the fold, the paper handed out 27,000 iPads.
It’s going to get worse, folks, here and elsewhere.
Newspapers are the go-to source of news for only 10 percent of American adults. The numbers are decent for those over 50, abysmal for those under 30. The average age of a newspaper reader is close to 60 and when they die, there’s no one in line behind them.
Put in local terms, research shows news consumers in the Buffalo market prefer television over print as their primary source of news, 48 percent to 13 percent.
The online edition of daily papers attract a large audience. Some 90,000 people a day read the online edition of The News, for example. But it’s much tougher to monetize the online reader. A digital subscription to The News can be had for as little as $1 for six months. The price maxes out at $240, and I doubt many are playing full freight. Home delivery, by contrast, costs $1,300 a year.
Hence the phrase “print dollars and digital dimes.” Actually, it may be more like pennies.
Hence, the nickel-and diming by chains of the local newspapers they own.