2005 year of new products, technology

By Ray Sullivan: Guest Columnist

The year 2005 was a busy time for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. New publishing initiatives and technical upgrades allowed us to expand and improve on how we provide you with important information in traditional and new ways.

And it occurred amidst some of the busiest news days our region has faced in years. Our three news teams covered many routine stories and the region’s biggest news, including the uncertain future of Cannon Air Force Base; three large fiber-optic construction projects in Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari; the lack of moisture in recent months; the loss of some regional support for the Ute Pipeline water project; and several extraordinarily brutal murders.

None of those stories were more important, however, than the 874 obituaries we printed in the Clovis News Journal, the 436 in the Portales News-Tribune, and the 231 in the Quay County Sun. It is an honor to print these brief summaries of the lives of friends and neighbors, and their relatives. As usual I was most struck by those involving young infants, followed by the obit for Clovis businessman and civic leader “Mac” McDaniel. His tall frame, big smile, gentle nature and ambling gait were a gift to all who knew him.

Internally, our year started strong on the business front, then softened and held steady the rest of the year. Concern over the possible loss of the air base tightened some business spending, as did softening real estate and automotive sales.

Yet, like many of our customers, we decided not to stop the new projects we were drawing up but to reinvest in the future by finishing those initiatives.

New products include Saturday paper, Fronteras
The first one was to move Monday’s paper to Saturday in Clovis and expand it to Portales. Launch was Aug. 6, before fall prep sports teams started playing. News Journal and News-Tribune associates worked with readers and advertisers on prototypes, and outlined the challenges each department faced and overcame them.

Local ad share is strong at our papers, but Monday is nationally a slow day for revenue and news, and so it was here. Saturday is the week’s busiest shopping day and more breaking news and sports usually occurs Fridays, so news content is usually much stronger. Reader and advertiser support has been strong because people want information 24/7. Saturday fills a big void and Sunday news of significance is placed on our Web pages so there won’t be a gap for Internet-savvy readers.

Then, five weeks after the Saturday launch, we began distributing a free Spanish-language weekly, Fronteras, every Wednesday in Curry, DeBaca, Roosevelt, Quay, Parmer and Bailey counties. A mixture of syndicated and local news, this tabloid attracts new readers in the influential and growing Hispanic community. Several advertisers report they are seeing many new customers in their stores.

The year ended with efforts to expand our online news and business capabilities. Traffic on the Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari Web pages grew tremendously throughout the year, not just during big events like base hearings and murders. We know the newspaper of the future will depend on how you like to read your news and ad information. That takes manpower, equipment and investment in other news or ad sources. This year we are staring a New Media unit that will employ up to three people. Paying for the investment requires that we develop more advertising opportunities for our customers. We did that in late November and the first month’s results have been exceptionally good.

Technical improvements among year’s highlights
Finally, 2005 brought several technical improvements. Besides the usual computer upgrades, we switched ink providers after experiencing problems last summer and fall. Then we lined up a supplier who provided better blankets that go beneath the plates on the press. Lint shedding from the old blankets was muddying reproduction quality, plus the blankets weren’t pushing the plates tight enough against press cylinders for good page impressions.

The most significant work started last October, with a $300,000 capital improvement project at the News Journal known as CtP, short for “computer to plate.” We print all our papers in Clovis and this project meant combining two prepress rooms into one to house two lines of CtP machines.

They transfer computerized page designs directly onto plates and develop them in continuous fashion. It eliminates the step of sending images first to film and then transferring them by hand to plates and developing those. One less reproduction step, better inks and new blankets have resulted in sharper colors and better page registration.

The CtP project will be done in a few weeks when a new electronic plate bender arrives. Our old bender is a decades-old, worn metal contraption. Press operators have to slide developed plates into it by hand and apply pressure three times to make three separate bends per plate. Worn metal and different operator techniques cause plates to not line up as precisely on the press. When that happens, color images and words blur on paper.

With the new bender, our pressmen will put each developed plate in the same place in the machine each time. At the touch of a button, the bender will automatically make the bends the same way within seconds. That precision will further reduce prepress time, aid color registration and reduce newsprint waste.

Some of our old technology has or will be carted off. And some, like a newer image-setting film machine, will be moved to our Freedom Printing operation in Portales, so that staff can do better work.

As 2006 begins and news events like Cannon and murder trials are played out, we expect to offer more high-quality journalism that has led to numerous awards for our three newsrooms, including eight of nine general excellence awards won by the CNJ staff the last three years. We can, and expect, to always do better than we did before.

Customer service will receive more focus again this year thanks to new technology and streamlined operations. Our parent corporation, Freedom Communications Inc., is installing new computer systems for the circulation departments. We hope to have ours in place by mid-year, though it could be later.

Plus we are working to unveil this winter or spring a combined customer service desk for Portales and Clovis readers who call in about missing or late papers.

Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to provide this snapshot of the good work done by the associates at our papers and print operations. We have upwards of 90 associates at any one time. Every day their efforts make this business successful for the owners and valuable to you.
Have a great 2006.

Ray Sullivan is publisher for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. Contact him at 763-3431 or by e-mail: ray_sullivan@link.freedom.com