Leader's future in jeopardy by plant closure

·6 min read

Eganville – The future of the Eganville Leader and two other independent community newspapers in Renfrew County is in jeopardy this week following Monday’s sudden announcement the plant that prints the newspapers will close at the end of May.

McLaren Press Graphics in Bracebridge informed its customers early Monday morning of the pending closure after four decades in business. Company President Drew McLaren cited numerous issues leading to the decision including a global paper shortage, increases in material costs, as well as labour shortages.

Besides a large commercial print operation, McLaren Press prints 30 community newspapers each week as well as another 50 speciality publications.

“The last two years has been extremely challenging for us, with business running at 40 percent below pre-Covid levels,” Mr. McLaren said. “At the start of Covid, our second largest client ceased publishing. Then, in January of this year, our largest customer closed their doors, leaving us with significant unpaid accounts.”

To further aggravate the situation, he said due to the current global paper shortage that is forecast to continue into 2023, the company has been put on a paper supply allocation that is well below its 2021 levels, preventing the company from growing its business.

“Material costs have increased 20 to 30 percent, putting huge pressure on profit margins,” he continued. “Labour shortages have meant we have not been able to replace key employees who have left the company, forcing us to reduce shifts and trim schedules while trying to align things with our current sales levels.”

Mr. McLaren said as the economy began to recover, starting about six months ago, he believed the firm could build the business back up to levels where it could be profitable, while maintaining its reputation as a quality print supplier.

“Now with these recent challenges facing us, there is little indication that we will be able to achieve either of these goals.”

Leader Publisher Gerald Tracey said when he learned of the decision early Monday morning, the news was like hearing of the death of a loved one.

“It was shocking to say the least,” he said. “We have been printing with McLarens since 2011 and have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the company. Even though we are separated by distance, the owners and many of the staff have become like family. They certainly don’t deserve this.”

Mr. Tracey said the company focused on quality printing and attention to detail. Besides the Leader McLarens also printed the various specialty magazines and special editions produced by the Leader.

Other newspapers in Renfrew County that print at McLaren includes the Valley Gazette in Barry’s Bay, the North Renfrew Times in Deep River and the Petawawa Post at Garrison Petawawa. The Madawaska Highlander, a seasonal monthly publication covering Greater Madawaska and area during the summer months, was also printed by McLarens and delivered to the Leader for distribution.

Limited Options

In the old days when newspapers were published by the hot metal method, every publication had its own flatbed press, but when offset printing came about in the 1960s, there were only a few newspapers equipped with the high speed, expensive presses. At one time, there were three offset presses in Renfrew County – Arnprior, Renfrew and Pembroke. Today, there are two in all of Eastern Ontario – the Ottawa Citizen and the Winchester Press and about 12 in all of Ontario, mostly owned by Metroland Media or Postmedia, and a few in the GTA that focus on printing ethnic newspapers.

“When we converted from hot metal to offset printing in 1973, we were printed at the Arnprior Chronicle plant,” Mr. Tracey said. “Then, when it was purchased by Runge Newspapers in Renfrew, the plant was closed and printing was shifted to Renfrew. We printed in Renfrew for many years until we moved to Performance Printing in Smiths Falls. Now, all of those presses have been idled.”

With the clock ticking, newspaper publishers affected by the closure of McLaren are reaching out to other plants to see if they have press time, and more importantly, paper to print their products.

“Our only options right now appears to be either Ottawa or North Bay, which are both owned by Postmedia, if they will take us on,” Mr. Tracey said.

The Eganville Leader was founded in 1902 and has the largest paid circulation of all community newspapers in Ontario and possibly Canada. It will have published continuously for 120 years on June 20.

Mr. Tracey assured Leader subscribers and readers he will do everything in his power to continue publishing the newspaper and keep the proud 120-year tradition alive.

He also assured subscribers will be reimbursed what they are owed in the event arrangements cannot be made to continue printing the paper.

Scrambling For a Printer

Valley Gazette Publisher Michael Lavigne said his was one of the many newspapers now scrambling to find a printer following the announcement of the impending closure.

“I would have liked more notice,” he added.

With between 1,500 and 2,000 copies printed each week, with seasonal variations, he said the majority of his subscribers want the printed edition.

“Because the majority of our readership are 40 and over, they want the paper in hand,” he said.

With only a few printing plants in Ontario, he was concerned the big giants might see this as an opportunity to “fleece” smaller independent newspapers with the price of printing the paper. One alternative would be for the community newspapers to try to get a group rate for printing, he noted.

Mr. Lavigne said he wants to see the Gazette continue as a print publication serving the Barry’s Bay community and beyond.

“Would an online paper be serving our community?” he asked. “I don’t think so.” As well, there is not enough revenue with a potential online newspaper to keep staff employed.

“Which advertisers would come onboard to support us?” he questioned.

Quite a Shock

North Renfrew Times (NRT) Publisher Terry Myers said it was quite a shock receiving the news Monday the printing plant was closing.

“I’m trying to be optimistic at the moment,” he said. “Printers are having a hard time getting newsprint, so we will see.”

The NRT has been printed at various plants, including the plant in Arnprior, then Runge Press in Renfrew and for awhile at the Pembroke Observer.

“When the Observer closed the press, they shifted us to Kingston and Ottawa and Mirabel,” he said. “We were bumped around a bit.”

He said when the NRT decided to go with McLaren it was after a lot of consideration.

“McLaren was a fair-sized operation, but they were family owned,” he said. “To find something like that will be challenging.”

Going back to one of the giants like Postmedia or Metroland would be a possibility, he believes.

“My gut feeling is they will do this,” he said.

The Ontario Community Newspapers Association (OCNA) has board members from both independent newspapers and the large chains, so there is a relationship there.

“They are not out to get us,” he said. “They want us to survive.”

Printing around 1,700 copies a week, the newspaper also has a digital presence and recently won second place for Best Community Website/Web Portal, under 9,999 circulation in the OCNA annual competition.

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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