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On the power of newspaper printing – Print21 magazine

Wednesday, 19 August 2015
By Patrick Howard
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Fairfax Media's print and logistics director, Bob Lockley

Long a symbol of the power of print, few sectors have been hit as hard by the internet as newspapers. With circulations continuing to fall, Bob Lockley is at the epicentre of the greatest rationalisation of newspaper presses in the history of the region. He talks with Patrick Howard about how Fairfax Media is adapting to the realities of the market and positioning itself for the future.

A newspaper press hall is one of the printing industry’s most iconic sites. It represents the strength of the printed word, the essential form of mass communication for over two hundred years. The roar of high-speed web presses pounding through the night is a sound few forget. The smell of ink and newsprint, the tensions of meeting deadlines, the significance of the first printed copy loaded out the delivery bay, all combine to reinforce and celebrate the power of newspaper printing.

But newspaper printing is no place for sentimentalists. Hard decisions are demanding attention as the internet continues on its all-conquering way. Circulations are plummeting with little sign of a flattening out. For someone such as Bob Lockley, the print and logistics director of Fairfax Media, tough choices are required on a daily basis. Printing sites that only a few years ago were paradigms of the latest technology must be closed and their equipment relocated. Local operations across the country are consolidated into larger hubs. Towns such as Orange, Bathurst, Warrnambool, Cootamundra, Queanbeyan and recently Mount Isa no longer have printing presses for their local newspapers.

The major Fairfax metro sites at Chullora and Tullamarine have gone, their presses and publishing systems reallocated or scrapped in one of the most significant changes to newspaper printing in Australia’s history.

Today Bob Lockley is responsible for 15 printing sites across Australasia that print some of our most important newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, as well as the Australian Financial Review. These plants, large and small, also produce scores of local and regional newspapers and specialist rural publications, such as The Land newspaper and Stock and Land, which still function as the primary news media for readers in regional Australia.

Who got what?

It is just over three years since the decision was made to close the Chullora and Tullamarine metropolitan printing sites, shifting the work out to North Richmond and Ballarat respectively. Addressing the steep decline in newspaper circulation as well as shifting demand for a more diverse range of publications, Bob Lockley oversaw a program to dismantle, re-allocate or scrap some of the most advanced newspaper printing sites in the world. In the process he changed the landscape of Australian – and New Zealand – newspaper printing forever.

A Tullamarine manroland Geoman press tower went to Ballarat, plus a new folder and a new Uniset tower. North Richmond received four towers and one folder and one Ferag publishing system. Four towers and a folder went to Wellington and have been commissioned in the past couple of months. New Zealand also received a Ferag system. All up, nine of the Tullamarine towers were reallocated and nine scrapped.

In NSW all 22 towers of the double-width Colorman presses – the epitome of modern printing technology when they were installed in the custom-built press hall in the 1990s – as well as most of the Muller Martini publishing system at Chullora were scrapped. [Fairfax recently sold both the Tullamarine and Chullora sites].

“It was a major shift, no doubt about it, the largest ever. A logistical challenge and a huge realignment but overall it’s gone very well, came in on budget, on time,” said Lockley.

“Utilisation was the main reason. The metro sites were operating at approx. thirty per cent utilisation. As a result we were able to do major upgrades at North Richmond and Ballarat with a smaller upgrade to Canberra. Richmond was $21 million and Ballarat was $17.5 million,” he said.

The North Richmond site is now operating at over 80% utilisation with Ballarat at a similar level. The AFR, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Monday to Friday are printed out of the two regional sites, while Canberra and Beresfield (Newcastle) print Saturday sections of the Herald. Portions of the weekend Age come from the Albury plant.

“We print a considerable amount of commercial work now, including catalogues… External clients are now a significant part of our business.”

“Converting to tabloid allowed it all to happen,” says Lockley. “While the majority of the publications were already tabloid, the final piece of the puzzle was the front sections of the metros so they could be accommodated on the smaller regional presses in a less complicated way.”

A major printing enterprise

Despite the circulation declines in recent years the Fairfax Printing Division still consumes thousands of tonnes of newsprint every day. Its numbers are only rivalled by the amount of commercial catalogues that are now pushed through the revamped press halls. Newspaper printing is the largest single consumer of plates, paper, inks, press blankets and the host of other consumables that sustain the supply side of the industry. Fairfax Media employs hundreds of production staff and tradespeople, sustaining the printed medium of newspapers. At the same time the company is strengthening its digital communication channels. The plants, however, are very different beasts than in a previous generation.

Part of the transformation was the integration of UV curing as well as heatset drying on the newspaper presses. This allows the presses to not only run in-house products as the Good Weekend and Sunday Life magazines but also to enter the highly competitive catalogue market, either for newspaper inserts or as stand alone products.

“We print a considerable amount of commercial work now, including catalogues. That sector has stayed fairly consistent over the years and it’s still buoyant. External clients are now a significant part of our business,” said Lockley. “At Ballarat we have heatset coming through the Geoman tower and at Richmond we’ve had heatset since 2000. North Richmond has two towers of Uniset carrying UV driers. At Canberra we have UV on two double-width towers with 64-page capacity.”

The importance of UV curing cannot be overestimated for the future of large web presses. The Baldwin UV technology at Fairfax is ground breaking in allowing formerly dedicated coldset presses to seamlessly run newsprint and coated papers through the same press. Combined with an increase in the number of heatset driers, especially at Ballarat, it expands the number and type of products the company can compete for in the market. But the transition has not been plain sailing.

”It’s been a battle with UV as it’s more difficult to control for the printers. It’s a good system but very challenging. You have to be right on top of it,” he said.

“We run coated or uncoated. We leave it set up permanently and if we need the capacity we run heatset and UV together or coldset. In fact UV loves uncoated better than coated.

“Before I’d say it’s the default [technology] for the future it has to become a little more economical. While it’s capex friendly, the consumables costs are higher. But it’s certainly doing a great job for us.”

Regional is best

Bob Lockley with Andrew Norris, editor of The Land newspaper, at North Richmond

In the fast moving competitive world of catalogue printing, Fairfax is able to leverage its nationwide array of sites. Lockley reels off the 10 plants that are preparing to print a job for the catalogue market: “Mandurah, Murray Bridge, Launceston, Albury, Ballarat, Canberra, Beresfield, Richmond, Dubbo and Ormiston.

“Because we produce so many different products, for many different clients, as well as our own products – suburbans, regionals and agricultural – it’s cost effective for us.”

“We’ve lived through the end of the great newspaper printing era. We can’t expect it to come back.”

However even with the input of commercial print the tonnage going through the presses tells its own story. In its heyday Chullora could produce up to 2000 tonnes a week solely for The Sydney Morning Herald and the AFR. Now at Richmond, where in addition to commercial client work there is a wide range of suburban papers as well as The Land, the plant averages 700 to 800 tonnes per week.

The decline in the amount of newsprint consumed is yet to have a significant impact on the supply chain, but the sole local producer of newsprint, Norske Skog, is closing plants all around the world. Lockley and his counterparts across the sector live in hope that the company continues to see its Australian operations as viable.

“I’d love to see it [the fall in circulation] flatten out but whether that will happen remains to be seen. We have contracts to 2020 and we’re asking Norske Skog, ‘What’s the viability of you staying in Australia?’ There may come a point when it’s not viable. Today it means short lead times, less storage, just in time delivery.”

A changed landscape of printing

If UV curing and heatset printing is part the transformative strategy, the inevitable question of digital for newspapers is never far away. Already Lockley would like to integrate Kodak Stream inkjet onto the big presses, giving them the ability to personalise and identify every printed product. This opens up the possibility of making every newspaper into something that resembles a separate lottery ticket. Then there’s the possibility of printing complete newspapers digitally.

“I’ve been looking at digital presses since 2000 and I remain very interested in the innovation. It needs to be a bit quicker and to bring down the cost per copy,” said Lockley.

“We’re looking at the future all the time. We’ve been through one significant time of change and I’m always looking for ways to improve our cost base and our efficiencies to keep print viable.”

The realignment and closure of printing plants has been a feature of Bob Lockley’s time at the head of Fairfax Printing since 2007. Since the 90s, he estimates around 30 newspaper sites have been closed around the country.

“There’s a range of measures we can take at any of our printers depending on how various publications run. We’ve still got fifteen sites and we partner with Torch and Latrobe. We closed Mt Isa recently, and three in New Zealand. We need flexibility. It’s sad to do it but we’re in a business that needs to move and change with the times so we enjoy continued commercial success.”

The bitter rivalry between the newspaper chains may continue in a publishing sense but these days on the printing side it’s leavened with common sense. Fairfax and News Limited share distribution costs, utilising the same trucks to deliver rival mastheads from the same consolidating facility. “It doesn’t matter any more who gets to the newsagency first,” says Lockley. In New Zealand, Fairfax consolidated the Waikato and Auckland printing plants and moved the work into an APN operated print facility in Auckland.

“There used to be eight printing sites in New Zealand in 2007, now there’s three; Christchurch, Wellington and Nelson. It shows you the state of the nation. We’ve lived through the great heights of the traditional newspaper printing era. We can’t expect it to come back. Local newspapers are doing better, they haven’t suffered to the same extent, and people love their local.

“We have seen some print customers migrate to total digital and come back to print. There’s still life in newspapers and magazines. Fairfax will stay in printing as long as it’s viable. A considerable amount of our revenue is still in print. Fairfax has done very well out of this rationalisation.”

It’s been a long, 49-year career in the industry for Bob Lockley, starting when he began as a compositor with Cumberland in 1966. A true printing blueblood, the trim athletic 65-year-old has rarely had a day off work or taken a ‘sickie’ over all that time and scoffs at the idea of slowing down, let alone retiring from what he describes as, “just the best job.”

“I still like to read the paper. A lot of young ones won’t have the same relationship with newspapers in the same way that I do. The mobile will be everything to them; it’s almost everything now.  I’m a print man, but I love the iPhone and my iPad too.”

When asked to identify the single greatest technology change he’s seen in the industry he’s quick to nominate CtP (computer-to-plate). “It’s by far the biggest change. There was hot metal to cold set of course, but CtP was the big game changer in my time. Now health and safety is the other main focus. For sure, it’s a different game than before.”

There is no nostalgia in his tone, no sentimentality for the glory days of the past. Despite a long newspaper-printing career, Bob Lockley still has his eyes firmly focused on the future.


– As appeared in the latest issue of Print21 magazine.



One Response to “On the power of newspaper printing – Print21 magazine”

  1. August 20, 2015 at 5:37 pm,

    Ian Hair

    Patrick, as a former newspaper man in a previous life, I really enjoyed your article on Bob Lockley and The Power of Newspaper Printing. If any old newspaper man is not stirred by this paragraph they don’t have ink in their veins:
    ”A newspaper press hall is one of the printing industry’s most iconic sites. It represents the strength of the printed word, the essential form of mass communication for over two hundred years. The roar of high-speed web presses pounding through the night is a sound few forget. The smell of ink and newsprint, the tensions of meeting deadlines, the significance of the first printed copy loaded out the delivery bay, all combine to reinforce and celebrate the power of newspaper printing.”
    Thanks again for the fine article, albeit a sad reflection on the future of newspaper printing. One good thing is Bob Lockley still looks like he could don the inky overalls and paper hat and make that deadline.
    Ian Hair

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