Let’s get rational

An email from a manager, who is often trying to communicate honestly and openly with staff – as management books say they should – can be posted on media-focused websites within minutes.

This would be unthinkable in most companies. IBMers don’t tweet, blog or ring Hewlett-Packard the moment the boss changes strategy, rethinks marketing tactics, or changes the workforce structure. Such information, by and large, is respected as company-confidential.

Not so in this industry; which might explain why newspaper management is infamous for being a reluctant communicator.

In Australia at least, it’s an industry joke that you have to read News Limited papers to know what’s going on at Fairfax, and Fairfax papers to know what’s going on at News (if that’s your myopia; though showing similar enthusiasm for understanding readers and clients would be more beneficial).

However . . .

The management missive that found itself on the internet this week concerns what is basically the worst kept secret in the industry . . . the need to rethink printing operations and costs.

To increase the amount of investment in journalism and product quality, it is essential to consolidate or modify print operations, especially in the big cities.

Right now, there are two multi-million-dollar print plants sitting almost next door to each other in southern Sydney. Every night the delivery trucks of Fairfax and News go on separate delivery runs to the same newsagents – environmentally unsound, wasteful and, let’s be honest, bizarre.

It is time to end such practices. In fact, the time was a decade ago but we are where we are.

This Association brought in two experts from News International a couple of weeks ago to help the process along, and they spoke to an invite-only audience of the top print and production executives in Australia and New Zealand.

Steve Whitehead and Alan Brett help run News’s Broxbourne Park plant – the biggest print centre in the world. It prints The Times and its arch-rival, the Daily Telegraph, every night. There are specific processes and Chinese walls to prevent Page 1 scoops being shared, thus ensuring journalistic and product integrity.

The sky has not fallen in.

The Chicago Tribune prints 15 daily newspapers. Its newest client is city rival, the Sun-Times, which decided to close its print plant because it made more sense to consolidate an important process but one that, ultimately, isn’t a competitive advantage.

Closer to home in Hobart, News Ltd business unit, Davies Brothers, prints the Australian Financial Review, owned by Fairfax. And when it started printing The Australian, the copy price on the island dropped because there was no need for air freight charges. This is a simple example of how sensible consolidation can be.

In Victoria, the two rival firms have shared trucks for long-haul, country deliveries for a long time.

So discussion of consolidating print operations in Sydney and Melbourne is little more than following a trend that will help fortify our industry.

There are some unfortunate aspects, of course. No one likes to see more redundancies, but this is the price of change for any industry that must recalibrate operations and refresh its skills.

Such an approach is unlikely to be confined to Australia.

It is incredible that New Zealand – population of little more than four million – has 14 print centres.

The reason is its numerous daily newspapers all want to go to press with the latest news at 11pm or midnight. Old-school thinking. It’s not the latest news when you pop into the newsagent to buy the paper at 8am.

Printers rightly ask why such late print times are necessary when editors talk about the 24-hour news-cycle and the importance of their newsroom adapting.

Over the next two years, rival publishers will increasingly work with each other to reduce the mutual cost base in areas of no competitive advantage.

This is good. And it might highlight to some that our greatest competitor is not the newspaper across town but an increasingly fragmented media that provides unprecedented media choice.

Where we can work together to meet this challenge, then let’s do it and get the job done.

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