Jun 13, 2023
Portsmouth, NH press closes: Local newspapers to print in Mass., RI
PORTSMOUTH — The whirring sound grows louder as the press gains speed. Newsprint unrolls faster and faster, picking up inked images of a Monday newspaper as it moves across aluminum plates mounted on
PORTSMOUTH — The whirring sound grows louder as the press gains speed. Newsprint unrolls faster and faster, picking up inked images of a Monday newspaper as it moves across aluminum plates mounted on cylinders. Sharan Moore stands at the control panel adjusting the color density as the first papers roll off the press.
“I like that smell and the feel of the press starting up,” she says, loud enough to be heard over the rumbling machinery. “There’s an energy. It’s like there’s a freight train taking off and you can feel it, you can feel it through your whole body and it just kind of takes over. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
Foster’s Daily Democrat and the Portsmouth Herald are the last two papers off the press. At 9:45 p.m., Alan Laskey, who has run the press since the first paper printed on Feb. 26, 2007, hits the black auto shut down button and the press slows and then falls silent.
“Oh boy,” Laskey says. “That’s it. It’s over, over, over.”
On Sunday, March 19, 2023, the last paper rolled off the press at 111 New Hampshire Ave., the Seacoast Media Group headquarters at Pease International Tradeport. For the first time in centuries, there will no longer be a press printing a daily newspaper in the city.
Gannett, Seacoast Media Group’s parent company, announced in January the press consolidation that will move printing of the daily Portsmouth Herald and Foster's and weekly Exeter News-Letter, Hampton Union, York Weekly and York County Coast Star, to a Gannett-owned press in Auburn, Massachusetts. Seacoast Sunday will print on Gannett’s press in Providence, Rhode Island, where the company prints the Providence Journal.
In its December 2022 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Gannett disclosed its press consolidation strategy.
“For the years ended December 31, 2022 and 2021, as part of our synergy and ongoing cost reduction programs, we ceased operations of 11 and 21 printing operations respectively,” the company wrote.
“As of December 31, 2022, Gannett Publishing Services ("GPS") owned and/or operated 29 print facilities. Each of our print facilities produced 14 publications on average during 2022.”
“By clustering our production resources, utilizing excess capacity for commercial work, or outsourcing where cost-beneficial, we are able to reduce the operating costs of our publications while increasing the quality of our small and mid-size market publications that would typically not otherwise have access to high quality production facilities. We believe we are able to reduce future capital expenditure needs by having fewer overall pressrooms and buildings. We also believe our superior production quality is critical to maintaining and enhancing our position as the leading provider of local news coverage in the markets we serve.”
With more than 100 daily titles in 45 states, Gannett is the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, and it is not the only company consolidating its press operations. There are reports almost daily of press closures and consolidations around the country as companies focus their efforts on the digital future while trying to shed some of the cost of their print past.
In 2021, Poynter reported nine press closures in the first two and a half months of the year, including its own Tampa Bay Times and McClatchy’s Kansas City Star.
Many newspaper companies choose to close their presses to sell off the valuable real estate that houses them, Poynter reported. SMG’s building is appraised by the Portsmouth assessor’s office at $7.8 million. As of this writing, the company has not made any public statements regarding the sale of the building.
The closing of printing presses and the sale of real estate is part of the larger picture of a shrinking newspaper industry.
“Overall, 2,500 newspapers in the United States — a quarter of them — have closed since 2005,” The New York Times reported in 2022. “The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025. And in many places, the surviving local media outlets have made major cuts to staff and circulation.”
Because Seacoast’s papers will now be printed in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and trucked back to Portsmouth for delivery, the news department will have earlier content deadlines, which means some late-breaking stories won’t make it into that day’s print edition. Strategically the news team for the past several years has focused on breaking news on its websites Seacoastonline and Fosters.com, as it prioritized growing its digital subscriber base, which far outnumbers its print subscribers. In its 10-K filing, Gannett reported it now has more than 2 million subscribers to its digital news products.
John Tabor, Seacoast Media Group’s former longtime publisher, who convinced then owners Dow Jones to purchase the new press for roughly $8 million in 2004, said he was “stunned” when he heard about the press closure.
“As the newspaper business shrinks, it’s print or be printed, and we’d always managed to be the printer and it was very lucrative for us,” Tabor said. “We were a publisher’s printer and through the years had published dailies from Laconia, Conway, Nashua, the Union Leader, Lowell Sun and hundreds of smaller weekly and niche publications. It was a good business to be in, and we did quite well, and that’s why I was stunned (by the closure announcement). The press was high quality and the people were high quality.”
Alan Laskey, Seacoast’s operations manager, grew up in Dover. As a kid he delivered Foster’s Daily Democrat. He got his first job in high school working part-time in Foster’s mailroom, placing ad inserts into each afternoon's paper. His mother, Barbara, worked for years in Foster’s classified advertising department. When he graduated he took a job running the mailroom at Rockingham County Newspapers in Stratham, which published the weekly papers Seacoast publishes today.
Tabor, the former publisher, immediately recognized Laskey’s ability.
“He could talk to the machines and the machines would talk to him,” Tabor said. “And he was a natural leader.”
In 2006, Laskey took over press operations for Seacoast. When Dow Jones contracted with Goss to build the new press at a plant in Shanghai, Laskey traveled to China for due diligence and a press test. The press, which stands 40 feet high and 90 feet long, was shipped from China to the Port of New York and after about a month in customs was trucked north to its new home in Portsmouth.
In a special section announcing the new press, Paul Briand, then director of operations, wrote: “The Magnum press gives SMG more sectioning opportunities and more pages where the company can offer advertisers and readers more color. The press can run at 50,000 copies per hour and produce a 48-page product in four sections with 24 pages of full color.”
The opening of the new press was a proud day for Laskey and his team, nearly all of whom remained with the company from the press’s opening to its close.
“We were feeling optimistic,” Laskey said. “We were on top of the world. We had the best press and the newest press in New England. We had some big aspirations of growing our commercial print business.”
Commercial print quickly became a major driver of Seacoast Media Group’s growth.
“We went on to keep growing for a long time, but the world around us changed,” said Tabor, who retired five years ago and is now a Portsmouth city councilor. “Printing was profitable and helped make the newspapers timely because we could print them late at night, and we always had the resources to invest to do things.”
Seacoast Media has done its own share of press consolidations through the years. When Rockingham County Newspapers merged with the Herald in 1997, it closed the Herald press on Maplewood Avenue and moved printing operations to the RCN press in Stratham. In 2007, when the new press began to roll at Pease, the press in Stratham was closed. The building that once housed Rockingham County Newspapers and its press now houses a VIP Tires & Service and a surgical outpatient center.
In 2013, Seacoast struck a deal to lease Foster’s press in Dover, and it began to print the Union Leader, which in turn closed its press. In 2018, when the Union Leader took its business to the new press opened by The Concord Monitor, Seacoast Media, which by then owned Foster's, closed the Dover press and consolidated printing operations at Pease.
As the final papers rolled off the press Sunday night, those who were working and those who came just to be there, all said what they’ll miss most are the people.
“It’s tough; you get to know people,” said Peter Bullard, a press manager, who came to Seacoast after Gannett shut down its press in Norwood, Massachusetts, eight years ago. “You make friends. You put a lot of work into making a good quality paper and that all just disappears. Thursday to today (Sunday) are the hardest days because that’s when you say goodbye to people you’ve worked with for 10, 15, 20 years.”
Jerry Wornica, a press supervisor with the company since 1997, said of his co-workers, “It gets to feel like a family after a while."
“We built a great team,” Laskey said. “It’s been a family and familiarity thing and it was always good. You would come to the same place every day and you knew the people and your job was solid and you’ve been doing it for 32 years and yeah, it’s going to be a tough thing Sunday night when we shut the press down for the last time."
While there was a shared sadness over the closing of the press, many of the 34 workers impacted by the closing also expressed optimism for the future.
Pressman Jason King said he’s already interviewing at other presses, and D.J. McManus, who works in shipping and receiving, called the closure “a blessing in disguise.”
“I’m 34 years old,” he said. “Young enough to reinvent myself. The timing of it just works. Yes, I’m going to miss the people, but we’re lucky the job market is what it is right now. Everybody is hiring.”
“It’s like a feeding frenzy out there for recruiting,” Sharan Moore said. “There’s a lot of jobs out there. I’m not worried about finding something else.”
While confident of finding new work, Moore acknowledged the significance of the last paper rolling off the press.
“I’m sad to see this industry die,” Moore said of printing newspapers. “I just wish it would have taken a little longer to get there. Things have been dwindling down for years, and I’m glad I was part of it because this is history. This, right here, is history. Tomorrow, it will all be gone.”Why Seacoast Media Group's press is shutting downHow will the press closure impact readers of Seacoast newspapers?Press consolidations on the Seacoast'It’s been like family’