‘Valley News’ Press Operations Prepare to Close in West Lebanon, Move to Concord

  • "This is my last job," said Gary Goodwin, 71, during a smoke break from the mail room at the Valley News, where he worked for five years inserting and labeling papers, in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 22, 2018. "I used to deliver this paper as a kid," he said. "I left here just as soon as I could." He moved to Oklahoma where he was a tree climber for 20 years. With no plans to continue working for Newspapers of New England when printing operations are consolidated in Concord, he is thinking of moving back to Oklahoma to be near his children. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News Pressman Buddy Druge sprays a printing plate with silicone before attaching it to the press as Don Libbey stands ready to advance the roller in West Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday Dec. 19, 2019. Druge and Libbey were working on a 400 copy run of the Broadside, Hanover High School's student newspaper. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Press operator Don Libbey checks a master page for transferring type to hot lead plates at the "Valley News" plant on Route 10 in West Lebanon, N.H., in the early 1970s. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Goss Community offset press runs a daily issue of the "Valley News" at its plant in West Lebanon, N.H., in the mid-1980s. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Jerry Relihan, Larry Leonard and Ed Hawkes check the "Valley News" as it is coming off of the press at the plant on Route 10 in West Lebanon, N.H., in the early 1970s. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Perkins, left, and Jason Libbey weigh waste from the Goss Community offset press during a daily print run at the "Valley News" plant in West Lebanon, N.H., in March 1989 as the company begins the transition to a new flexographic press. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Preparations are made to insert advertisement flyers into an edition of the "Valley News" as it is coming off the press in March 1989. The newspaper had just switched from an offset to flexographic press. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Press operator Adam Howard, of Thetford, Vt., makes adjustments during a printing run of the weekly TV section for the "Sunday Valley News" in West Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 6, 2018. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Crews prepare to test one-half of the press installed in Penacook, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2019. The "Valley News" will begin to be printed at the facility with its Feb. 1st edition. (Concord Monitor - Geoff Forester)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2019 10:22:39 PM

West Lebanon — Jason Libbey came to work as a pressman at the Valley News a couple of months after he graduated from Hartford High School in 1988.

On Wednesday night, after 30 years of operating and overseeing the newspaper’s presses in West Lebanon, Libbey will stand at the command console on the catwalk and watch the giant machines begin rolling for their final run, printing Thursday’s Valley News.

For a dyed-in-the-wool printer like Libbey, the newspaper’s last printing at its plant on Interchange Drive might appear as a moment to mourn the passing of an era, one captured by the roar of a two-floor-tall cast iron and steel apparatus that spits out 13,000 newspapers each night.

Yet despite spending nearly his entire life at the Valley News — Libbey, 48, the press and building manager, would tag along when he was 6 years old to work with his father, Don, who ran the pre-press department and still works in the pressroom — Libbey is not grieving the end of an era at the newspaper, which launched in 1952 and whose other operations, including the newsroom and advertising, will remain in West Lebanon.

“There’s been bumps on the road, to be sure,” Libbey last week said of his career at the Valley News last week from behind his desk in a cramped office off the pressroom floor. “But it’s been great. I’ve loved it. If you like what you do, it’s relaxing.”

Nearly seven decades of printing the Valley News in the Upper Valley will draw to a close with the Jan. 31 edition as the newspaper’s parent company, Newspapers of New England, moves printing to a new plant in Penacook, N.H., where the process will be consolidated with its sister newspaper, the Concord Monitor, as well as other papers.

NNE is shifting printing of the Valley News 60 miles away in a move both to save money and to help generate revenue by printing other newspapers in the northern New England region. The more than $4 million investment in the new printing plant, which company executives say will increase the range of offerings while lowering its production cost, is a contrarian bet on the future of a medium that has seen its financial underpinnings collapse because of the internet and smartphones.

“We’ll see a big savings in our publications that will also allow us to be more competitive in commercial printing, where we’ve been at a disadvantage for many years,” said Dan McClory, publisher of the Valley News and chief financial officer of NNE. “The quality of printing will be as good if not greater. We’ll have much greater capacity for color, and we’re going to be able to offer things we’ve never had before, like labeling, sticky notes and (wrap-around) advertising.”

Readers will notice some changes off the bat: The width of the Valley News, a broadsheet, will narrow to 11.75 inches from 13.75 inches, and the length of the newspaper from top to bottom will grow half an inch to 22.75 inches, bringing it in line with the majority of newspapers today. The size of the typeface will be slightly smaller, part of an overall redesign to better fit the narrower page.

Staff already are working under a new nightly deadline that has been advanced from midnight to 10:30 p.m. in order to accommodate the trucking of printed newspapers north on Interstate 89, which is estimated to take more than an hour. In some cases, that has pushed information that would have previously made the print edition — including late sports scores — onto the paper’s website.

The accelerating migration of readers and advertisers to online platforms has upended the business model for printed newspapers, forcing them to adapt to new technology and find new sources of revenue to replace that lost to the internet. But despite the shift, the majority of the revenue still comes from print, McClory said. Only one-thirteenth of Valley News subscribers are digital-only.

“The shift is happening where digital is becoming a bigger shift, but it’s a slow shift,” he said.

NNE executives contend there is still a market in print, albeit a smaller one.

“While many readers look for rapid, regularly updated digital news presentation, many others still want a print version,” the company said in a statement when it announced the new printing facility last summer, which is in a former window manufacturing plant in the Penacook section of Concord.

“Advertisers want to reach all members of our community, both digital readers and print,” the company said. “These changes are intended to balance the diversity of needs with our rising costs and also are intended to help us be more efficient, produce new revenue and save money on back-end function.”

In essence, McClory said, NNE is turning to the money that would come in from printing other newspapers outside the one it owns — known as “commercial printing” — to support the operations of the newspapers it owns. The Valley News has long done that in West Lebanon, but officials say the new plant will be even more competitive.

“The opportunity to grow the commercial business is an opportunity to use that revenue to subsidize our daily papers,” McClory said. “We have to be more aggressive in different sources, and that’s a big one.”

NNE publishes five daily newspapers: the Valley News and Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, along with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News in Massachusetts, along with a handful of other publications.

The Valley News has not been immune from circulation declines, but they have been less severe than those suffered by many other newspapers. The most recent audited circulation figures report that the newspaper has a Monday-through-Saturday paid circulation of 13,028 and a Sunday circulation of 13,280.

That’s about 5,000 fewer subscribers than the Valley News had at the peak of its circulation around 1995, according to McClory.

“I still think it’s a lot better than a lot of papers,” McClory said.

The Valley News has about 1,000 digital-only subscribers, adding 350 in the past year alone, said Nathan Perotti, the newspaper’s circulation operations coordinator. (Print subscribers already get free digital access to the paper’s website, www.vnews.com.)

Looking Back, and Ahead

In 1990, the Valley News took a gamble on what the company thought would be the coming thing in printing newspaper. It retired its old offset press, which used oil-based ink to print the newspaper, to a flexographic press that used water-based ink.

Flexographic printing, which didn’t require the use of foul-odor oil inks and didn’t rub off on reader’s hands, was popular in Europe — the Valley News’ flexographic press was acquired from a newspaper in Copenhagen — “and was just taking off in the U.S,” McClory said.

NNE was among the first American newspapers to adopt the new technology.

“We were unusual,” said McClory, who had just joined the company at that time as a corporate accountant. “It was maybe one of the only times in NNE history we were on the cutting edge.”

Flexographic printing had some distinct advantages — richer colors, but also biodegradable inks that are better for the environment.

“Water-based ink sinks into the paper much better, so you don’t get the smudging you did with oil ink. It was much cleaner all around,” Libbey said.

But “flexo” — printers use the shorthand — also had one big disadvantage. The flexo presses use polymer-coated steel plates on which the ink is applied to print the image on the paper. That is considerably more expensive than the old offset printing method, which uses cheaper aluminum plates that do not require a polymer coating to hold the ink.

The cost difference is substantial. It costs about $6.20 to “burn” — that is transfer a computer image of the page onto the plate’s surface — a single flexo polymer-coated aluminum plate as compared to about $1.50 each for an offset steel plate. Since the Valley News burns about 500 plates per week, the cost quickly adds up.

McClory said returning to an offset printing process in Penacook will, among other savings, reduce the cost of plates about 75 percent.

“That’s a big savings for our publications and also allows us to be more competitive in commercial printing,” he said.

The narrower-width newspaper also means using less “newsprint,” the type of paper use for newspapers, at a savings that McClory estimated is 10 to 12 percent. Although tariffs on Canadian newsprint recently were lifted, the price did not come down.

The changes also mean the loss of about 30 jobs in West Lebanon in the press room and distribution. The newspaper offered positions in Penacook to many of the employees, but given the long commute, only six have elected to make the move: four in distribution and two pressmen.

“The negative is that we are having to transfer those jobs,” McClory said. “But the positive is we are doing this to ensure our long-term existence.”

Getting From Concord to Corinth

One of the challenges of printing the newspaper in Penacook will be trucking roughly 13,000 copies back to the Upper Valley.

Pressman Mike Vaillancourt will drive down to Penacook along with pressman Buddy Druge, a 20-year veteran of the Valley News, where they will be among the approximately 60 employees — most of them coming over from the former Concord Monitor printing and distribution plant — at the new facility.

McClory said the goal is for Vaillancourt and Druge to leave Penacook with the printed edition of the Valley News “no later” than 1:30 a.m. in order to arrive in West Lebanon — they will stop to unload papers to carriers in Grantham along the way — by 3 a.m.

Once the newspapers arrive in West Lebanon, they will be transferred to the fleet of home delivery carriers — all independent contractors — who fan out across the Upper Valley in the early morning hours. Home delivery times will be pushed back by about 30 minutes.

Fixes and Floods

There have been some hair-raising moments during the nearly 30 past years since the Valley News installed its flexo press in West Lebanon.

Libbey — a self-taught ace mechanic — remembers the time last year when he was awakened by a ringing phone at 1 a.m. after a newspaper rolling over the printing cylinders tore and pieces of it wrapped the cylinder, knocking the timing of the unit off and requiring him to speed from his home in White River Junction to fix it.

Then there was the time on a Sunday afternoon a few years ago when a motorist crashed into a power line outside the newspaper’s offices on Interchange Drive, cutting power to the building. Power outages always hamper the newspaper because, even if power is restored, there’s an additional lag time for the press’s computer system to reboot.

By far the scariest moment for Valley News presses was when Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011. As the waters of the Connecticut River rose and flooded the shopping plazas along Route 12A in West Lebanon, police ordered the Valley News evacuated shortly before deadline.

Robert Mathewson, the newspaper’s operations manager who oversees the printing operations, said contingency plans in the event of the press failing call for the plates to be driven to the Concord Monitor’s printing plant and the newspaper printed there. But the evacuation meant that the newspaper could not even produce the plates for printing.

So no newspaper was printed on the night of Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, the first time anyone can remember that happening.

Floodwaters never reached the Valley News building and employees were allowed back inside the next day. That day’s edition was edited and laid out in the morning and the presses began rolling around 11:30 a.m. The newspapers were out the door by 1:30 that afternoon for delivery.

“That’s the closest call I can remember,” said Mathewson, who joined the Valley News in 1977 in the advertising department and is retiring this week after a 42-year career during which he has held a wide range of jobs.

“I’m hoping my luck holds out for another seven days,” Mathewson said last week. “It’s always nerve-wracking.”

As for Libbey, he is uncertain about his future after the Valley News stops printing in West Lebanon. He didn’t want to commute to Penacook, but he may stay on as building manager in West Lebanon.

“If I don’t do that I’ll take a couple months off and then look for something in the machine field,” Libbey said. “I like machine work. It’s about building things, solving problems and using your brain.”

But Libbey suspects Wednesday night and early Thursday morning will be his final press run as a printer.

“I’ve put enough ink on paper,” he said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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