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Forum Printing leaves its stamp on the community

Janelle Jager, who has worked for Forum Printing for 21 years, jogs magazines off the saddle stitcher. Paula Quam/DL NEWSPAPERS

In the dead of the night when the world is quiet and the people of Detroit Lakes are fast asleep, there is one place where loud, thunderous machines can always be heard thumping away and where people will never stop hurrying to make their deadlines. It never shuts down; its tasks are never completely finished.

For 21 years, Forum Communications Printing, located in an industrial park east of Detroit Lakes, has continued spitting out copies of the printed word for newspapers and other publications all over the country.

But its black, inky roots go deeper still.

The beginning

It was the mid-’60s and small, local newspapers were getting word that they would soon need to switch printing methods from the old letter press that had served them for years in their own offices to a then-new technology called “offset printing.”

“But it couldn’t have been in the cards for all these little papers to each buy the offset press, so they started this concept of a central printing press where a production plant with offset printing could print several different papers,” said Forum Communications Printing Plant Manager Randy Freed.

That’s when then-publisher and owner of the Detroit Lakes Newspapers John Meyer decided he would start up a printing plant in Hawley for his papers (he also owned a newspaper in Moorhead called The Moorhead Scene), as well as any others who could use those services.

Right away, other local papers jumped on board, as the first edition of the Becker County Record printed via the offset printing press, was kicked out on Feb. 8, 1966.  It was four pages with one color page.

Business at the printing plant continued to grow, and in 1985, Meyer sold the press to Forum Communications Company, which had acquired several local newspapers, including the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Becker County Record.

The plant was taking on more newspaper publications, as well as commercial jobs. Businesses were contacting them to do independent projects such as books, magazines, catalogues and insert flyers.

By 1992, Forum Communications Printing had outgrown its Hawley location and the decision was made to relocate to a 20,000 square foot facility in Detroit Lakes.

At that time, newspapers were still the plant’s main gig.

But as time went on, Forum Communications continued buying more publications — everything from Park Rapids to Wadena, Alexandria, Duluth, Bemidji and many more.

That new, built-in clientele, along with other non-Forum Communications owned papers, led to two building expansions, more than tripling its production space from 20,000 square feet to 67,000 square feet and more than doubling its employees from roughly 40 to 90.

But soon the Internet would burst onto the scene, threatening the print world in a way that proved too much for many printing plants across the country.

Fast change in press technology didn’t help, as many couldn’t afford to keep reinvesting in an industry that was capital driven.

But their loss was Forum Communications Printing’s gain, as substantial backing and built-in clientele from the Forum Communications papers meant the plant in Detroit Lakes would not only survive, but would thrive, as it absorbed some of the market share left over from the closings.

Jobs were coming out of the woodwork, and they were diverse.  Health care, agriculture, real estate, colleges — when people needed printed items, they often went to Forum Communications Printing, which had been able to roll with the times and invest in technology that kept them relevant and in-demand.

A well-oiled machine

Today, Forum Communications Printing in Detroit Lakes kicks out 30 different newspapers every week. It sounds daunting, but that’s not even the biggest job.

Commercial printing has taken over as the company’s most prominent aspect, as it bids on and wins printing contracts all over the United States. Books. Magazines. Directories. Pamphlets. Post cards. Brochures. The list is seemingly endless, and again, the re-investment of yet another type of technology has helped them score these jobs.

A year and a half ago, Forum Communications Printing added to their artillery of presses a “UV Press.”

“With your typical offset printing, the ink rolls onto the paper and it just kind of soaks in and dries,” explained Freed. “But it doesn’t work on glossier paper, so with the UV, the paper is pulled through UV lamps and instantly cured.” 

In pre-press, which is the area of the plant where pages of publications are assembled and burned onto the plates that will essentially be used as “the stamp” while printing copies, technology is the name of the game.

“In 2006, we converted to all digital, so the days of film are gone,” said Production Manager Mike Noll, who says all of the digital pages are sent to them via computer network. “So now it’s all computer to plate.”

Paul Sander has worked for the printing press since its Hawley days, and today his eyes are the last ones to scan each one of those “plates” for mistakes before sending it off to print. He says throughout his 36 years, the digital conversion is what has proven the most significant from where he stands. 

“I’m doing the work of four people now because we can really go like crazy,” said Sander. “Going digital has saved us so much time and mistakes.”

Although the plant can purr like a well-oiled machine when things are going as planned, there is a lot of room for error.  That’s because there are so many points along that way that a publication must pass through before actually being printed — points run by humans capable of human error.

“That’s why everybody here is always looking over what the department before them has done,” said Customer Service Manager Mandy Erp.  “Everybody’s job is so critical. We have to work together because one mistake along the way can have a snowball effect.” 

And when it does, you just might here those famous words, “Stop the press!”

“Yes, we do still have to say that once in a while, but thankfully not very often,” laughed Erp.

But the crew of employees at the printing press in Detroit Lakes doesn’t just have to work together, they also work hand-in-hand with other Forum Communications-owned printing plants in Fargo, West Fargo and most recently Duluth. 

This has proven beneficial, as it allows for collaborations and job sharing. If there is something Detroit Lakes can’t do, like perfect binding, they can still satisfy their customer by having that done in the Fargo plant.

Although there have been dips and challenges throughout the years, DL’s printing press continues an overall growth of 2-5 percent revenue per year, according to plant managers. And although the idea of print being “a dying trade” has been a concern for employees of the printing plant over the years, they’ve come to realize that its popularity really isn’t dying down. 

“Ten years ago we had a client who decided they wanted everything just put onto CD, but today we’re printing more for them than we ever have,” said Freed. “So I think people will try things, but it seems like they always end up coming back to the printed product.”

Freed says businesses like grocery stores, Walmart, Menards and others are demanding more printed inserts for newspapers than ever before, and with Black Friday coming up, everybody at the plant is bracing for a mad house.

“Last year we printed 2.2 million inserts for the various newspapers during the week of Thanksgiving,” said Freed, “so those are really going strong.” 

In fact, Freed says the plant will go through 7.5 million pounds of paper a week, or 192 semi-truck loads, and there always seems to be a truck pulled up to the plant ready to pick up and deliver yet another load of the printed word. 

But even with the strong demand for those paper products, Forum Communications Printing continues to explore the digital possibilities as well with what is called “e-publication.” 

“We might print a 64-page publication for somebody, but then we can also turn around and place those 64 pages onto their website as well so that they can reach their online customers” said Erp. “Or if we print up posters or flyers for them, we can create a QR code so that people can walk by with their smart phones, scan it and it will bring them to our client’s website.”

Mixing new technology with the old idea of ink and paper, it’s turning out to be a killer-combo concept for Forum Communications Printing — one that has them leaving their permanent stamp on Detroit Lakes and the entire country.

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes, Perham and Wadena, all in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466