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When should newspaper turn to a consultant for guidance on production operations: By partnering with consultants, production departments can save dollars and optimize their business.

It's easy to get so deep into the proverbial weeds of everyday workflow that you cease to realize how difficult the trudge has become or even notice you're bushwhacking where you would have sworn there was once a fairly strait-and-narrow path. When do you admit to yourself that you're lost or that the terrain has become so unfamiliar that your built-in GPS isn't going to be much use in guiding you to your intended destination?

For some of us, hiring a consultant can be a little like asking a stranger for directions--made worse because of the seeming indignity of inviting an outsider to show you around your home turf. The entire point of doing it is to get a fresh pair of trained eyeballs looking at a problem from a perspective you may have overlooked, and maybe lift that rucksack of vested interests off the backs of your beleaguered stakeholders, rallying them around a path forward that they might otherwise have missed or avoided on their own.

According to Linda Rabagliati, vice president of consulting services and chief operating officer of Alliant Consulting, "Most of the time, the staff has the answers." A 25-year veteran of providing operations expertise to the industry, Rabagliati considers herself the "road warrior partner" of her firm.

"I'm the one who's been in all the newspapers ... on site." She describes a method of working "side-by-side (with) staff and management," some assigned to work with her full-time for the duration of her engagement. Projects can last four weeks to a year, depending on the scope, said Rabagliati.

The approach, Rabagliati said, "gets buy-in faster" at all levels than it would if the paper's employees were left to "stand by on the periphery" and let the consultants do all the work.

"Change is difficult for everyone. We try to eliminate (any disconnectedness or loss of ownership) as much as possible," she said.

For her, those partnerships date back to her first newspaper consultancy at The Los Angeles Times in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the Rodney King riots. She recalls delivering papers with the DMs while neighborhoods were echoing with gunfire. She can reel off a list of a dozen or more major papers in the United States and Canada that she's worked with since then and says there are 50 to 100 papers in all.

Newspaper production and operations are not the sole areas upon which she is asked to concentrate. "Most of the time work starts in a contact center," she said, but she has also guided advertising departments through territory realignments and adjustments to their compensation programs; trained sales reps how to utilize co-op; followed display ads through their life cycle from sales through fulfillment in creative services, platemaking and press; and whittled down the number of different insert packages a mailroom produces from 600 different packages a night down to 245.

She found a lot of room for improvement in pre-press workflow, where goals of "First in, first out" and "In by 3, out by 7 p.m." are defeated by a tactic in which sales reps move newer ads in front of ads that were turned in earlier. She calls this practice "the boot." Also, the tracking of ads is something that is often lacking. Rabagliati said papers don't use those systems effectively or the systems are not being utilized at all. She added a lot of times it was not because a system is incapable of tracking, but because workers aren't aware of its capabilities until she's dug into the documentation.

Deadlines are also a passion for Rabagliati. "I wish we could change it from deadline to turn-around," she said, suggesting that that would have the effect of smoothing out workflow and lessening the tendency for sales reps to submit all their ad copy at the last minute. "I can deal with 10 (ads on deadline)," she said. "I just can't deal with 100."

What does a typical consulting engagement entail? Rabagliati said it often starts with internal surveys to see where the staff is and where management is in terms of what they think the paper's greatest needs might be, and what they hope to gain by working with the consultant.

"At the end of this engagement, what do you want?" she said. That's what she hopes to ascertain. Along the way, she engages the teams she's working with to produce performance metrics, helping to measure the success rate in every department.

"We do a lot of skills assessment. Are the right people in the right place with the right skills? We look at everything from a customer perspective," Rabagliati said. "Our focus is quality and service" and if you get those right "performance and productivity become a by-product." What's critical to Alliant's success is that Rabagliati stays with the paper from assessment through implementation.

Mike DeNardo of DeNardo Consulting Group agreed saying, "At the end of the day, publishers are looking for a tangible result. The days of (generating) a theoretical white paper for newspaper management and staff to use as a road map toward implementation are gone."

Starting in 1985 with an engagement at the San Jose Mercury News, DeNardo has served close to 200 newspaper properties over the years, the majority of his engagements addressing challenges in production and circulation, but also some wall-to-wall restructuring of the whole organization.

"It's developed into a good niche for us," DeNardo said, constituting more than 80 percent of his firm's total consulting business.

I worked with DeNardo on two occasions during my career and found his guidance valuable, netting operational recommendations that were actionable.

"We use industry experts on site, drawing on people with specific experience in the departments being studied," he said. DeNardo teams them with experts in statistical analysis to benchmark a paper's performance against data the firm has collected at its many other client papers. The first phase of work measures how the paper stacks up and what potential for improvement there might be, allowing for the idiosyncrasies of the operation. The second phase involves helping achieve those improvements.

Like Alliant, engagements "run the gamut from a few days to many months," he said. From time-to-time, a client paper may even need a temporary executive to fill a gap there. DeNardo's firm is well-positioned to plug that hole with one of its affiliated experts.

The drivers that produce a demand for DeNardo's services are primarily cost reduction or optimizing the operation. "Especially now, papers are looking for assistance in either outsourcing or bringing somebody else's work in-house," he said. "It always blows down to time and money."

Following trends like outsourcing, though, are not always in the best interests of a paper, DeNardo points out.

"What happens sometimes is people outsource without having first optimized (their own) operation," he said.

For example, a distribution partner may be able to deliver papers at 20 cents per copy, shaving five cents off current costs, but DeNardo asks papers, "Can you do it better if you optimize by restructuring routes?"

Acquisitions, cooperative distribution agreements and production facility consolidations are some of the key areas in which DeNardo helps companies manage change.

Procurement is another area where newspapers may find justification for engaging specialized consulting services. That's a central focus of Above the Standard (ATS) Procurement Group, which in January added to its ranks former New York Times operations executive Bob Urillo as a franchise owner serving primarily the newspaper and print industries. Urillo was previously vice president of operations for the Regional Media Group, which the Times sold to Halifax Media Holdings in 2011.

Urillo said one of the things that attracted him to working with ATS was that its fee is based on a percentage of savings over the term of a negotiated contract. "We don't get paid unless you (save money)," he says. "This model makes a lot of sense on the procurement side.... I don't think you'll find many (other consultants) willing to stand that level of risk."

The alignment with ATS provides him with access to specialized consultants and analysts with whom he can collaborate on a broad range of services outside his core competencies, and brings print and newspaper specific business his way that he might not otherwise get. Urillo said he works for anything that goes on in the print space, for and with other ATS affiliates who may have generated the lead.

Because of Urillo's newspaper operations background and long history negotiating contracts with vendors serving the industry, he said he knows what buttons to push with the vendors to give his consulting clients a bargaining advantage, and he understands the differences between the vendors and the products and services they sell to best advise his clients on their options.

Urillo negotiated a three-year plate contract for us here at The Fayetteville Observer that saved us about a quarter million dollars over the contract term. We wouldn't have achieved that outcome without him.

Aside from procurement services, Urillo also offers consulting in newspaper and print operations, pointing to his first-hand experience in the industry to differentiate himself. "I've spent my whole career doing this," he said.

The Austin Co. also boasts a storied history serving the industry, but within a specialty--engineering and architecture--that

doesn't compete directly with the consulting services provided by the others. The firm, which dates to 1878, has been designing newspaper production facilities and adapting existing facilities since at least the 1920s, according to Curt Miller, vice president and general manager.

"I can't think of any chain we haven't worked for," Miller said, rattling off a list of pressrooms and packaging centers the company has designed for Knight-Ridder, Gannett, McClatchy, News Corp, BH Media and others.

A key to building up a clientele of newspaper companies is a deep understanding of their needs. "You need to know the unique requirements of newspapers," Millers said, and be familiar enough with operations to "provide a fresh set of eyes" when working or reworking the way a production space is configured.

In recent years, The Austin Co. has primarily focused on production facility consolidations. Newspapers are trying to optimize their assets, consolidating with another printer, he said. The goal is to merge the operations in a comfortable manner so it serves either parties, or multiple parties.

Miller said, 'We don't do as much work in the industry as we did." Where in the 1980s and 1990s, and up to the mid-aughts, the newspaper industry accounted for 20 to 30 percent of the company's revenue, it's now below 10 percent, but "it still constitutes a good market for us," he said.

That's a shared experience for some of the other consultants serving newspapers. "It's slower now because spending is tight," Rabagliati said about the health of the newspaper segment of her consulting business.

However, the need for outside expertise has never been higher. "Newspapers are reacting to the digital age and haven't done enough to understand their audiences' changing habits and needs. Different generations are reading things differently," she said, and many papers "haven't asked the customer what they want."

She remains, however, a strong believer in the printed product upon which so much of her livelihood depends. The newspaper business, Rabagliati notes, is "the only industry left that produces a brand new product everyday."

Caption: (Left) Bob Urillo, Above the Standard (ATS) Procurement Group

Caption: (Right) Curt Miller, The Austin Co. vice president and general manager

3 QUESTIONS WITH ... Brian Ambor, production director for Messenger Post Media

What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Increasing commercial printing or bringing on new work, while at the same time needing to control overall costs. These timelines just are not in sync with each other, which is the challenge. There is a natural shared cost that develops with more work. Developing a solid operational plan which transfers costs from our traditional operations to the new areas (overall efficiency) is a key step to approval on changing the timeline. This plan also helps the staff understand how the business is changing and what new skills they need to learn.

Where do you see the future of print production?

Print production will continue to be consolidated or centralized so operations can optimize the use of equipment and staff. This will help justify further investments to improve production, expand print offerings and position the operation to take on more business. Investing in technology that can add new print features will help keep print vibrant and capture readers' attention. Variable Web/multiformat, digital printing, print-integrated web services, short run/high quality color, variable data, managing customer data and mailing services will become commonplace for print operations. In the end, the once-traditional newspaper printer will evolve to be high-tech and provide multiple services to hundreds of customers, not just one.

What printing technologies are you most excited about?

Digital printing and the Goss Magnum Compact. The America East Media Business and Technology Conference has lead discussions on digital printing progress in the newspaper segment in recent years, and again this year, we will have a panel discussion on digital printing. Some non-traditional newspaper vendors such as Xerox, Kodak, Oce /Canon and Hewlett-Packard will be bringing these print technologies to the newspaper segment. At the same time, traditional vendors such as manroland web systems, Goss, KBA and TKS are also offering solutions. The Goss Magnum Compact will compete with some of the advantages of digital--short run, low waste, high-quality color. At the same time, it can offer cost-effective longer print runs.

Brian Ambor is the production director for Messenger Post Media, a GateHouse company. He has previously worked with the Frederick (Md.) News-Post and several Gannett operations. Throughout his career, he increased commercial printing and improved safety, quality, and productivity of the operations.

W. Eric Schult is the operations director at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. Contact him on or at


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Title Annotation:production
Author:Schult, W. Eric
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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