The bell rings and a pressman eagerly announces, “It’s showtime.”
A low hum quickly builds into a steady roar as the Goss Headliner press gains speed, churning out another edition of the Star-Telegram at the paper’s cavernous printing and distribution facility at I-20 and I-35 south of downtown Fort Worth.
But on this night, only one of three presses is running on the line that stretches half a football field long, and workers are preparing for the next transition in a rapidly changing industry.
Starting Sunday night, all Star-Telegram daily editions and the company’s other publications will be printed in Plano by its longtime rival, The Dallas Morning News, a move brought about by a digital revolution that is shifting readers from printed newspapers to websites, smartphones and tablets for their news and information.
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Although the switch marks an end to more than a century of printing newspapers in Tarrant County, it does not change the Star-Telegram’s mission, said Gary Wortel, the paper’s president and publisher.
“Changing to a different print location has no impact on our commitment to readers for quality journalism, and our commitment to advertisers for producing the best results for their business,” Wortel said.
And, while fewer Star-Telegrams are being printed these days, the paper’s journalism is being seen by a growing online audience.
“We’ve got content available on your desktop, your laptop, your tablet,” Wortel said. “We want to make the product as convenient to consumers as possible.”
The new printing arrangement is part of a nationwide trend that has accelerated in recent years as print newspaper circulation and advertising revenue have declined. By printing fewer and fewer newspapers, publishers have been left with costly press lines that are underutilized.
Now the industry is dividing itself into two categories: those that have decided not to print their own paper anymore and those that are trying to make their press rooms a profit center by attracting outside printing contracts, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“It’s very common,” he said.
In Chicago, the Tribune is printing the Sun-Times. In Boston, the Globe prints the Herald. About half of the papers owned by the McClatchy Co., the California parent of the Star- Telegram, are being printed by other papers, some owned by McClatchy and some by other publishers.
Dallas-based A.H. Belo has opted to take in more outside customers for its printing facility at Plano Parkway and Coit Road, as declining circulation and advertising at The Dallas Morning News left it with extra capacity. Belo prints regional editions of USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in Plano, and it will dedicate two presses to the Star-Telegram.
One obvious benefit is reducing expenses, which has become imperative at the Star-Telegram and other newspapers as print advertising revenue has plummeted over the past several years.
Wortel said the Star-Telegram will see “considerable” savings over the course of its 10-year printing contract with Belo.
But there’s more than cost-cutting involved in deciding to outsource printing, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, an industry training center in Arlington, Va.
“If you’re a publishing company, you need to be thinking about what product you deliver to consumers, not just be focused on the industrial processes that you have traditionally used to do that,” Rosenstiel said.
Outsourcing printing “doesn’t mean you’re any less of a newspaper,” he said. “It may mean that you’re ready to focus resources on new ways of creating and distributing news.”
At the Star-Telegram, that transformation has been underway for several years as the advance of the Internet and the deep recession busted the traditional business model that worked for metropolitan newspapers for decades.
Founded in 1909 by legendary publisher Amon Carter, the Star-Telegram quickly became a publishing success. By 1924, it was touting itself as having the largest circulation in Texas — 90,260 daily — and by 1952 that had grown to 242,972 with morning and evening editions.
To handle future growth, the paper in 1986 moved its presses from the basement of its downtown Fort Worth building, which opened in 1921, to a new printing facility south of downtown. It invested millions more in 1998 to upgrade and expand the presses. The paper’s strong performance was an attraction for Knight Ridder to buy the Star-Telegram and other former Capital Cities newspapers from the Walt Disney Co. in 1997, and for McClatchy to acquire Knight Ridder in 2006.
Then, advertisers shifted dollars to the Internet, the U.S. economy fell apart and daily print newspapers nationwide went into a steep decline.
The industry has lost about half of its print advertising revenue since 2006, according to Edmonds, and Wortel said the Star-Telegram has mirrored that trend.
But circulation at the country’s newspapers has dropped only 16 percent since then because new audience measurement rules have allowed them to include nondaily publications in their overall circulation figures. Sales of core daily newspapers have declined more.
The Star-Telegram has started several niche publications since 2006, such as the weekly Arlington Citizen-Journal, so its overall circulation has only dropped from 220,000 during the week to 184,000 and from 334,000 on Sunday to 292,000.
“For advertisers, it’s how many households you can reach, whether it’s through the Star-Telegram or some of our other products,” Wortel said.
To adjust to the sharp decline in revenue, the Star-Telegram has been forced to slim down, reducing its newsroom staff and shutting some offices in eastern Tarrant County. The downsizing was capped by the 2011 sale of its historic downtown headquarters building to oilman and Texas Rangers co-owner Bob Simpson. The paper relocated to more modern office space in the Commerce Building across the street.
Through it all, the Star-Telegram has remained profitable, Wortel said. And McClatchy, which took on hefty debt with its purchase of Knight Ridder (since reduced by about half), has recorded one of the highest operating margins in the industry.
Meanwhile, the Star-Telegram’s employees have been busy reinventing, with reporters learning to shoot online videos, editors posting the news to digital products in real time and ad reps helping small businesses with social-media strategies.
Investments in the paper’s website, star-telegram.com, and DFW.com, its entertainment site, have driven up unique visitors. And last year, the Star-Telegram launched an innovative monthly sports magazine for the iPad called DFW OT, with other products in the pipeline.
During a typical week, the Star-Telegram reaches an audience of more than 1 million North Texas adults through its print and online products — the largest of any media on the west side of the market, Wortel said.
Even with the digital advances, experts don’t expect printed newspapers to go away anytime soon.
“There’s a fairly large contingent who prefer the print news presentation,” Edmonds said. “They also have shown some willingness to pay fairly substantial increases in subscription rates.”
He expects that to remain the case “for five or 10 more years, and maybe more than that.”
For the workers at the Star-Telegram’s south plant, however, the digital revolution means the end of an era.
With 275 jobs being trimmed with the move, most of them part-time, the closing will leave the Star-Telegram with just under 400 employees, down from about 1,300 six years ago, Wortel said. To help the departing employees with their transition, the paper has organized job fairs and provided severance packages.
One night last week, Terry Steffen, 56, proudly showed off the press equipment that he has worked with for 27 years, explaining a robotic mechanism that smoothly moves a huge new roll of paper into place without stopping the press run.
He said he would always tell people that he’d be there to close the plant, though not “under these circumstances.”
Fittingly, he summed up his career like he might a satisfying shift.
“It’s been a good run,” he said.