The Southwest Times Record of Fort Smith reported Wednesday that 37 employees will be laid off when its owner, Stephens Media, moves printing and mailroom operations for the daily paper and six weekly papers to facilities in Springdale and Lowell.
Moving the operations to printing facilities jointly owned with Walter Hussman's Wehco Media is the latest in cost-cutting done this year by Stephens Media, which is owned by Little Rock's Stephens family but headquartered in Las Vegas.
"It's hard when you have people who are doing a great job but lose [their jobs] from what they can't control," Tom Stallbaumer, publisher of the Times Record, said.
Stephens Media said there will be several positons available in Fort Smith and northwest Arkansas that will be offered to affected employees, while severance packages and job assistance will be provided to those who are laid off.
"I made it clear to the employees this was not a result of anything they did," Stallbaumer said. "Our press operators and inserters have done a great job; they performed beyond what the equipment would allow."
The Times Record is currently printed at 1000 Rogers Ave. in downtown Fort Smith. The production facility was built in the 1960s and downtown development has been built around it, including a Courtyard by Marriott hotel and the new Fort Smith Police Department.
Stephens Media currently prints six of its weekly publications at its printing facility in Van Buren: the Booneville Democrat, Press Argus-Courier, Alma Journal, Paris Express, Charleston Express and Greenwood Democrat.
Stephens Media and Wehco Media, owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, created the joint venture, Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC, in 2009, ending more than a decade of competition between two of the state’s biggest media companies.
The Times Record and other area publications will be responsible for transporting their finished products back to their coverage areas from Springdale and Lowell, Stallbaumer said, so some of the positions available will be transportation related.
He said considerations in the decision to move printing operations off-site were the age and location of the Fort Smith plant and the ability for Stephens Media to maintain 50 percent ownership of the new printing facility.
Stallbaumer said new development around the production facility limited the possibility of expansion.
It would have cost Stephens Media $10 million to $15 million to build a new printing facility in Fort Smith, Stallbaumer said, and the decline of the newspaper industry and the state of the economy make it hard to justify spending so much on a new facility.
Stallbaumer said in the last few years he has seen a national trend of media companies establishing regional printing groups.
“It makes sense when you can combine those processes instead of maintaining two to four [facilities],” he said.
The transition will be completed in two stages, with the weekly publications being moved from the Van Buren production plant in the next two weeks, followed by the Times Record several weeks later. Stallbaumer said all operations should be at the new facilities no later than the first week of September.
“We’ll be starting that implementation process today,” he said Wednesday.
The new facility will improve efficiencies, Stallbaumer said, with more page capacity, better section capabilities and more color inserting equipment.
“There shouldn’t be anything too obvious to the average reader that shows we’ve moved,” Stallbaumer said, although the Times Record’s various sections - such as news, sports and obituaries - could be printed in a different order at the new facility.
"There are definitely positives, but there’s no way to get around the fact that peoples’ lives will get turned upside down until they can find something else," he said.
Stephens Media hired a new CEO, Ed Moss, in November. In March, it shut down its Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, and that was followed by other layoffs in its central Arkansas newspapers division and at the Times Record.