For a “Gypsy Pressman” and thirty-year veteran of newspaper pressrooms the news is especially sad.

The Great Falls Tribune will pull the plug on their print facility. According to a story published in the Tribune last week, the daily newspaper will move production to the press at the Independent Record in Helena.

As near as we can tell, this will be the first time the Electric City has been without a locally printed newspaper since the Sun River Sun folded after a 14-month run.

According to a story published on October 28, 1979 in the Tribune, Will Hanks, who had been business manager of the Sun River Sun moved the “printing equipment to Great Falls to establish the Weekly Tribune in what was then called ‘The Cataract City.’”

The first edition of the Weekly Tribune came off that press on May 14, 1885.

Two years later, on May 16, 1887, according to that same article, the Tribune became a daily publication.

The Tribune was originally an afternoon newspaper but switched to morning delivery on May 19, 1890.

In 1916, the Tribune moved to a new facility on Second Street and was produced at that location until 1979 when the paper moved to its current location on River Drive.

With the 1979 move, the Tribune made the switch to “offset” printing, switching from letterpress. Letterpress used heavy printing plates, cast from an alloy of lead, antimony and tin. Once used, the plates were melted and recycled.

By comparison, offset printing plates are thin sheets of aluminum.

When the Tribune moved to the River Drive location, the paper installed a Goss Metroliner printing press. At the time, the “Metro” was the top-of-the-line printing press for large city papers.

In 2006, the Tribune acquired another, much smaller press, and launched River’s Edge Printing. The Tribune installed a Goss Community printing press in their building for River’s Edge.

The Goss Company that manufactured these presses would name the models of their presses based on the size of the community, or large city, they would serve.

A Goss Community, their smallest press, would serve small town daily papers and weeklies. But, of all the presses Goss offered at that time, the Community, when properly operated and maintained by a competent crew, delivered the best print quality. Before the era of digital proofs, all USA Today printing sites set their color on each run to a proof that was printed on a Goss Community.

The next step up in the Goss line was the Suburbanite, then the Urbanite. Most USA Today printing sites employed the Urbanite.

At the top of the printing press food chain was the Metro. The Tribune installed one “line” of six units. The press weighed in at just under 400 tons. The Metro is three stories tall.

River’s Edge Printing’s Goss Community was used to print “commercial work,” such as the weekly newspapers that dot the Treasure State.

The Fairfield Sun Times was printed at River’s Edge Press from around 2010 until 2018. During that period, some of the Sun Times’ commercial printing was produced on the press at River’s Edge, such as the Augusta American Legion Rodeo programs. The other Rodeo print jobs, such as posters and tickets, are produced in-house.

In late 2018, the Sun Times moved all of its printing to the Livingston Enterprise in Livingston. The Enterprise also operates a Goss Community.

The Sun Times moved to another print facility for only one reason – we were aware this day would come, even before we switched in 2018.

We hated to make the switch. The Tribune and the folks at River’s Edge have always been supportive of the Sun Times. And, since the Sun Times publisher is a long-time newspaper pressman, we knew how to have a smooth relationship with our friends at River’s Edge.

We worked with them diligently to improve their print quality which, in turn, improved the quality of our newspaper. The River’s Edge staff was always receptive to our suggestions. And we listened to their suggestions as well, and we knew how tough it can be to run a press. Especially one that is past its prime.

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The empty reception area of the Tribune, taken in January, 2019.

Once, when there was an equipment malfunction at River’s Edge, we got a call from our customer service rep, Amy Thomas. She explained the problem, and I asked if I could help.

I couldn’t, the problem was not the press, but another machine, however I knew what Amy was dealing with. Screaming customers.

I headed to Great Falls, stopped at Big Sky Deli and picked up all the cinnamon rolls they had and then made another stop in Great Falls to pick up an arm load of large pizzas.

I fed the River’s Edge crew. And once repairs had been made, guess which newspaper went on press first.

But, as the length of the daily press runs at the Tribune declined, we knew that there would come a time when the mighty Metro would just be too expensive to operate. I also knew that when that day arrived, there would be a mad scramble by community newspapers across Montana to find some press time. That’s when the Sun Times switched printers.

Late last week our phone began to ring with our colleagues at newspapers in the region asking for advice.

Several years ago we advocated for the creation of a new printing firm capable of serving the state’s community newspapers and commercial web-press printing. Sadly, people lump all newspapers together with failing dailies. Most community newspapers are holding steady.

We had argued that a small printing plant, much like River’s Edge, could serve most of the state’s community newspapers. Of course, I wanted to advocate for a facility in Fairfield, but in reality, Great Falls is an ideal location.

The closure of the Trib’s print facility is just a continuation of a sad trend. Last year, we published the story when the Nashville (TN) Tennessean, the state’s second largest newspaper, closed their pressroom and moved the printing to a Kentucky facility. We also reported that Tennessee’s largest paper, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis had lost so many subscribers and advertisers that they had sold their massive Metroliner presses and moved production to the much smaller press at my hometown newspaper in Jackson.

This year, the bad news continued.

In Pennsylvania, Gannett shuttered the print facility in Falls Township earlier this year.

In New York, Gannett closed a print facility in Walkill.

In Ohio, the Columbus Dispatch announced in January that they were closing their printing facility.

In more populated areas, the production will move to a facility close by. Still, the move often means that newspaper staff are forced to deal with earlier deadlines, but in a rural state like Montana, which has already lost pressrooms at many newspapers, the logistics of finding another press can be a challenge.

The Sun Times reached out to former Goss salesman Robert Bowers, who left Goss in 1991. Bowers is now president and CEO of Hall Contracting, which does press installs and removals. Bowers also acquires presses from closing or downsizing sites and offers them for sale, or in some instances, sends the presses to the scrap metal yards.

Asked if, in today’s market, a Metroliner has any value, Bowers told the Sun Times, “In today’s environment that type of press would not be marketable or usable due to today’s color requirements, page size, pagination and, circulation.” Instead, Bowers suggested that smaller, more efficient and user-friendly presses are the way to go, models such as the Goss Universal 45 and Universal 70.

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The website for River's Edge still features a commercial print job from the Fairfield Sun Times for a reference - "Rodeo Book" for the Augusta American Legion. The Fairfield Sun Times continues to publish the annual rodeo guide, but it is printed in Livingston, Montana now.

Three decades ago, as larger newspapers hit their peak, the Goss Community at River’s Edge would have cost $1.3 million; according to Bowers, today the same press could be purchased for $300,000.

Bowers is not optimistic when it comes to the short-term future for the daily “chain” newspapers. “I’m a recent convert to that feeling. The newspaper publishers have thrown in the towel and with the online instant access, regardless of content, it kills the day-old news. Plus, as you know newspapers develop very little in house news. With news services, content sharing and the propaganda they all seem to produce, they have walked away from the market.

Even from the standpoint of layout, the older readers prefer a newspaper, so what do the publishers do? They shrink their [type] font, shrink column size, shed content and leave just a paper produced for an online news site. When did newspapers start to shape the news instead of just report it? Has it been always like that and I didn’t notice?”

Toni Marie Castellanos acquired the Cascade Courier last September and has continued printing the Cascade County weekly at River’s Edge since. Castellanos told the Sun Times that she found the team at River’s Edge “very easy to work with. Friendly and professional.” As a newcomer to the newspaper business, Castellanos said that River’s Edge made her feel “like part of the newspaper community.”

Asked how the Great Falls plant closure would affect the paper, she said, “I really hope this will not affect the Courier.  We had to deal with COVID before this.  The Courier will be printed regardless.  I am looking for other options as far as printing, but it will be outside of Great Falls which can be a challenge.”

When asked if, as daily newspapers shutter their pressrooms, do you worry that small, locally owned, community newspapers will face challenges in the future that will make it hard to keep their doors open, the Courier publisher replied, “Yes, of course!  I am hoping someone, or a group of investors can come forward and open a Montana based printing operation to keep local newspapers alive for future generations.” Castellanos said she learned of the closure on the Great Falls Tribune Facebook page.

Roger and Erin Dey purchased the Blackfoot Valley Dispatch (BVD) in April 2012 and began to print at River’s Edge at the end of June 2013. “I can’t really say anything bad about the folks we worked with directly, primarily we dealt with our customer service rep Amy Thomas. She was really good about helping us out with any problems we had,” Roger Dey told the Sun Times.

Asked how the news would affect the only locally owned, community newspaper in Lewis and Clark County, Dey said, “Right now we’re not sure how this will affect the BVD.  We haven’t started exploring our options yet. As I understand it our contract will be transferred to Helena along with the Trib printing.  We’ll probably look into other printers and other formats, but the fact there are so few newspaper printing plants left in the state kind of puts us over a barrel.”

Dey continued, “Obviously, increased printing cost is a big concern. We may be the smallest independently owned newspaper in the state, so we don’t have the same economy of scale for printing that newspapers with larger print runs see. To top it off, we’ve seen a lot of our ad revenue lost to Facebook and other online advertising, and this year we’ve lost most of the advertising for our local summer and fall events thanks to the COVID-19 cancellations.  So, we’re struggling to make it as it is, and an increase in printing costs would definitely hurt a lot right now.”

Dey, though, sees opportunity for community-based reporting as the daily papers decline. “I think the loss of local pressrooms in the larger cities actually provides an opportunity for smaller newspapers to focus on hyperlocal news that people can’t get anywhere else. What’s making it hard to keep the doors open is the fact that businesses are relying more and more on online advertising and promotion, and not seeing newspapers as a part of their marketing strategy.”

Like Castellanos, the Deys found out about the Trib plant closure via Facebook. “I found out about the Trib shutting down their press operations, ironically, on Facebook. A friend posted a link to the story, which the Trib had posted earlier in the day. Honestly, I’m completely astounded they would publish that story before talking to the people they do contract printing for. I feel bad for the River’s Edge folks. I was told they learned about the plans the day before and were planning to get the word out, but I gather they were just as blind-sided by the story’s publication as anyone.

Is printing at the Helena Independent Record an option for the BVD? Dey said the printing at the IR is an option, be that the BVD would have to do some shopping around. “We looked into printing with them a couple years ago, but Rivers Edge was still a better deal for us.”

Before moving their printing to Rivers Edge, the Deys printed the BVD in-house on an 11X17 printer, Erin Dey told the Sun Times. “Tortuous! Staying up all night to get it printed and losing 2 days of work caused us to get it printed at Rivers Edge,” Erin Dey said of their former production method.

This story has been corrected and further edited from the original version.