The story of one hometown newspaper printer and how it portends the fate of an industry
By Emma Ea Ambrose
Photos by Morgan Joy Woodard and Daniel O’Donnell
THAT’S ALL FOLKS.
The decree is written in big block letters on the wall calendar in packing manager Randy LaGuire’s office. It marks the final day of the Journal & Courier Production Facility LaGuire has managed for almost a decade and a half.
LaGuire is stoic as he recites what he’s been told.
The printing press, located at 1501 Veterans Memorial Pkway., Lafayette, IN., which prints Lafayette’s daily newspaper the Journal & Courier, several smaller newspapers for outfits in Indiana and Ohio and a number of commercial products, will be ending production on March 2.
The Journal & Courier, one of the 100 daily newspapers owned by mass media holding company Gannett, will now print at a Gannett facility in Indianapolis, part of the company’s effort to consolidate and save on costs.
Then there are the things LaGuire hasn’t been told but knows for certain.
For example, he’s not starting another career, this is it for him. After nearly fifty years in the printing industry, LaGuire says he’s ready to retire, even if it’s a little earlier than anticipated. “I never thought I’d work in a place like this that’s so nice, so high tech,” LaGuire reflects. “This job, it’s been good to me and working in a place like this has been a good way to finish out my career.” The press was installed in 2006, and for the time was state-of-the-art. Still is, LaGuire adds.
Another thing he knows? This isn’t the end for the J&C, despite the local outcry that ensued after the announcement about shuttering the press. LaGuire has seen dozens of cuts across all sectors of the newspaper, from the printing floor to the newsroom, and he’s witnessed J&C circulation drop from 40,000 to what it is today, just under 9,000.
“It’s not over, though,” LaGuire says. “It’s never over. It’s always the company adjusting to what’s happening, adjusting to the decline in sales. Some of the things we’ve done over the years haven’t been viewed as very customer-friendly, but that’s just the industry trying to adjust as quickly as it can. Some of the services, like door delivery, just aren’t possible anymore and as much as people want to stamp their feet and yell that’s just the reality.”
LaGuire is not alone in his lengthy tenure at the press. There remains a core staff comprised of employees who have been there for decades, keeping their feet under them, despite the ever-shifting tides of the newspaper industry.
Unlike LaGuire, many employees, such as print operator Michael Hale, won’t be retiring when the press issues its last paper in March. “Closing feels like a loss,” he admits. “I’ve been well taken care of by this place, but I think I’m going to have to find a new career.”
“Everyone knew this day was coming,” Hale adds. Most employees agree that the writing has been on the wall since 2008 when, at the height of the recession, advertisers across the country pulled money from newspaper advertising. “That was at the same time digital really started taking off for newspapers,” Hale states. “We never got those advertising dollars back and the recession just sped up the demise of the print newspaper. From there on, it was just a balancing act between creating content and making a profit.”
Unlike Hale, Ashlyn Hudson hasn’t been in the printing industry long; she estimates it’s been about a year and a half. At seven months pregnant she’s still working on the line and, she says, still enjoying the work. The press will close roughly around the time Hudson is set to take maternity leave. As for now, she assumes, she’ll be using the up-coming time off to care of her newborn and look for work. “Even though there’s an age gap between me and everyone else here it still feels like a family,” Hudson says. “It’s upsetting because I probably won’t see these people again.”
That familial air softens the harsh industrial surroundings. People socialize, even over the rowdy machinery. Two employees working at the end of the line laugh with each other as their hands make quick work knotting twine and stacking bales of papers on pallets. Workers sigh in resignation when discussing the closure. Most employees say they won’t stay in printing, mainly because the opportunities just aren’t there. And beyond the immediate wreckage of the press’ closure – loss of friendships, income and accumulated expertise – pulses an existential fear no one can wholly articulate.
“Closing this print and redistributing the print jobs just feels like staving off the inevitable, which is when it all switches to digital,” Hale muses. “But my personal opinion is that digital, just digital, that’s no good. Where does the record go when you lose print? It’s like photos on your phone; even though they’re more accessible immediately, long term they’re less accessible.”
“I’m going to miss the smell,” Hale adds. “My wife says I have to save one of my shirts from my last day so she can smell it whenever she wants.”
Mathew Benham, another press operator, says he’s apprehensive about the print operation moving to Indianapolis. “There is already such distrust among the public of the news, even for local news,” he states. “Pushing the printing further away is going to aggravate this phenomenon.”
LaGuire adds, “People say they don’t want their news coming from Indianapolis, but it’s no different. The news still comes from here. It’s not like reporters come to the printing facility like in the old days. Stories will get sent to Indy the same way they’re sent here. I don’t think we’ve done a good job letting people know they’re still going to get a paper.”
But a discrepancy many people will notice, LaGuire says, is that the J&C will look physically different. “The Lafayette paper is one of the few remaining Berliner newspapers in the country, shorter than the standard broadsheet. When printing moves to Indianapolis, the J&C will gain about an inch and a half on top and bottom margins. That is a lot more waste, a lot more cost,” LaGuire contends.
The 14-year-old, 225-ton press, which required a 7-foot-thick concrete floor, remains groundbreaking in many ways. Manufactured in Germany, the press has the ability to print a full newspaper at a remarkable 35,000 copies per hour. Most of the employees had never seen anything like it.
In terms of what’s going to happen to the $24.1 million production facility, LaGuire says he hopes that it’s utilized. Someone could buy it for commercial printing but there’s also a chance the 47,000 square-foot facility will stand empty. LaGuire is pretty sure, however, that whatever comes in won’t be a newspaper.
“Like the blacksmith and horseshoes, the newspaper is slowly going the same direction. It’s a dying breed,” LaGuire lamented.