Expanding Services: Johnson Newspaper Corporation offers commercial printing

Alec E. Johnson, Editor and Publisher of the Watertown Daily Times and President and Chief Operating Officer of Johnson Newspaper Corporation stands on the upper deck of the ManRoland press in the Watertown Pressroom with Gary C. Valik, Vice President of Johnson Newspaper Corporation. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Valik are working to expand the company’s printing operations in Watertown and Massena to accommodate contract printing for newspaper clients. Kara Dry/NNY Business

By: Alex Gault
While newspapers nationwide are facing decisions on how to keep their readers informed as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic changes an already stressed business model, the publisher of the Watertown Daily Times is doubling down on the art of printing newspapers. 

Johnson Newspaper Corporation, based in downtown Watertown, and owner of the Watertown Daily Times, the Lowville Journal and Republican, Massena Courier Observer, NNY Business and more, has taken on a new role to help newspapers find efficiencies in their operations.  

Over the past decade, the company has expanded its reach and invested in its press operations in Watertown and Massena to print newspapers for commercial clients. In December, that grew as the company began printing the Rome Daily Sentinel for its owners, the Waters family. Like the Johnsons, the Waters have been publishing their newspaper for multiple generations. The Johnsons are in their fourth generation and the Waters are in their sixth generation of family publishing. 

Bradley R. Waters, publisher of the Rome Sentinel newspapers, decided to close the Sentinel’s nearly 50-year-old presses in November of this year, and the first Sentinel rolled off Johnson Newspaper’s Watertown press on Dec. 1.  

Mr. Waters said the decision to close the Rome press was purely a business decision — the company wanted to expand its reporting base, and running their own press was becoming too costly. He said the added stresses of the pandemic only hastened the decision.  

“(COVID-19) was kind of the nail in the coffin,” he said. “We liked the flexibility of owning the press, we liked being able to run when we wanted to run, but it was coming to the point where the margins were just getting too small. With COVID, we became comfortable working remote together, working with different office environments, and that was the kickstart to where we are now.” 

The Johnsons and the Waters have worked together on projects before, he said, so the business relationship was already there. When Johnson Newspaper Corp. fell victim to a cyberattack in May 2019, the Rome Sentinel offered assistance with graphic design work.  

“When you have that kind of relationship to start off with, it’s much more comfortable,” Mr. Waters said.  

Mr. Waters said, as he looked for a place to print the Sentinel’s newspapers, publishing companies for a number of well-known upstate New York newspapers reached out to him, including representatives from the Hearst Corporation, which publishes the Albany Times-Union; Ogden Newspapers, which has a press in Gloversville for its seven upstate newspapers, and Gannett, which maintains a press in Rochester for its papers. But none of those companies felt like a proper fit.  

“Working with a family newspaper is a goal of ours, and it always will be until there is just no other option,” Mr. Waters said.  

Besides the Rome Sentinel’s newspapers, Johnson Newspaper Corp. has brought on commercial printing clients from all over New York state. According to Gary C. Valik, vice president of Johnson Newspaper Corp., the company has brought on a number of college newspapers and community papers since 2010, including both weeklies and dailies in Binghamton, Batavia, Oswego, Syracuse and the Hudson Valley. 

“We pretty much have trucks running every night, going down Route 12, down (Interstate) 81, headed down the New York State Thruway both directions,” Mr. Valik said. 

The company has offered commercial printing in some capacity for years, said Johnson Newspaper Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Alec E. Johnson, but as the newspaper industry has shifted since the mid-2000s, many more newspapers have been looking to outsource their printing.   

Since the mid-2000s, at least 12 printing presses in upstate New York have shut down. At least 10 newspapers have closed their in-house presses and contracted out the work, including the Oneida Dispatch and the Utica Observer-Dispatch, both in 2011, the Glens Falls Post-Star in 2017 and the Auburn Citizen in 2019. Alongside those individual newspapers closing their presses, some commercial printing companies have also closed presses. In 2018, Gannett Corp. closed their 12-year-old printing press in Binghamton, and that same year, Vanguard Printing closed their presses in Dryden, which printed newspapers and magazines for a number of publications. 

“Every newspaper used to have their own press,” he said. “As the industry started to shrink down, my cousin (former CEO John B. Johnson), saw the potential for the growth of the commercial print business and he shepherded that along.”  

Mr. Johnson said that when Mr. Valik joined the company in 2014, he took on the expansion of the commercial print division in earnest, and rapidly expanded the operation.   

Mr. Valik said commercial printing has come to represent a sizable chunk of Johnson Newspaper Corp.’s overall business, and business for the commercial printing division has grown by three times over the last three years.   

With presses in Watertown and Massena, Mr. Valik said there’s plenty of press capacity available to print for clients, while also maintaining press capacity for Johnson Newspaper Corp.’s own publications. The ManRoland press in Watertown, which uses rolls of newsprint up to 4-feet-wide, weighing nearly a ton each, prints more than 5 million individual newspaper pages each week. 

Mr. Johnson said the Massena location is especially well utilized and has given the company the ability to offer clients quality, versatile products on a timely schedule.   

“In Massena alone most nights, when I see our press report in the morning, we may have one or two runs for our papers, but the other five or six runs are for commercial clients,” he said. “The press is running for hours a night.”  

Mr. Johnson said this all ties into the company’s overall mission, of offering quality news to readers in a timely fashion. By supporting other newspapers, offering a more cost-effective method of getting their news out, Mr. Johnson said Johnson Newspaper Corp. is continuing to support quality reporting.   

He said he thinks that mission, coupled with the history of Johnson Newspaper Corp. as a family-owned, local news company, has given it an extra edge in offering clients exactly what they want. Because Johnson family newspapers are being printed right alongside a commercial client’s, there’s an extra incentive to ensure the highest quality, and there’s a mutual understanding when things go wrong.   

Mr. Valik said communication and quality control are where he focuses his energy to ensure the experience for clients goes smoothly.   

“It’s about always being available to talk to them, in the good and the bad,” he said. “It’s about monitoring and self-checking every day. If I find on my walkthrough that a truck is leaving 45 minutes late, I figure out why it’s late and I tell the client as soon as I know.”  

He said it’s important to have a good team, and Johnson Newspaper Corp. has brought together a great team of pressroom workers, mailroom staff and a trucking partner.  

The corporation employs more than 200 people in New York state, 67 of whom work in the press rooms, as well as the distribution department. Ten press crew members work in Watertown, and another six work in Massena. There are open press positions, and the company trains employees on the job. 

Mr. Valik said the expansion of the commercial print business has presented opportunities for other industries in the north country as well. As Johnson Newspaper Corp.’s printing client list grew, they needed a quality trucking team to deliver the products to their clients, often hundreds of miles away.   

Rather than develop their own trucking department, Mr. Johnson said they established a partnership with a new company, S.E.A.T.S. Trucking.  

“In 2018, we were running our own trucking, along with the printing, and we realized that really wasn’t our expertise,” Mr. Johnson said. “Justin Ernst with S.E.A.T.S. came along and started talking with (Mr. Valik) about how he could build a company to serve our needs.”  

Mr. Johnson said Mr. Ernst has begun building a business from the ground up, based solely off of Johnson Newspaper Corp.’s commercial print division, and has established what is sure to be a long-running partnership.   

Johnson Newspaper Corp.’s clients themselves say they’ve formed a cost-effective, efficient and understanding partnership together, and are pleased with the results.   

Mr. Waters said his company has heard minimal complaints from readers, and while there is always room for improvement, the relationship between the Sentinel and Johnson Newspapers is off to a great start, and delivery has always been on time.  

“It was kind of seamless for our readers, we didn’t have to adjust our delivery times at all,” he said.  

Mike Dooling, general manager of the Daily Orange in Syracuse, said the quality of what he’s received from Johnson Newspaper Corp. has been incredible.   

“We’ve been voted number one college newspaper the last three years in a row for a reason,” he said. “It’s not just the editorial staff, it’s the printed product.”