A Sad Emblem of Our Times

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

A venerable Richmond-based printing company closed last May. Somehow, that really saddened me. Perhaps because it was located not far from where I live. Perhaps because it had been around for so long.  Perhaps because it had a niche business that seemed sort of neat to me. Perhaps because its closing seemed so emblematic of the times.

I meant to comment on it then, but other topics and activities kept bumping it down the list. Then, Jim’s post yesterday about the Virginia economy and some of the follow-up comments brought it back to my mind.

The William Byrd Press was founded in 1913. In 1984, it merged with a North Carolina company and was renamed Cadmus. By 2007, it had 500 employees and was the world’s largest printer for publishers of scientific, technical, and medical journals. It was the fifth largest printer of periodicals in North America.

In 2007, it was acquired in a $430 million buyout by Cenveo of Stamford , Connecticut. The national company has at least 30 other printing operations in the United States and India.

At the time of the announcement of its closing, employment at Cadmus had dwindled to 184 and its business had changed to the printing of magazines, comic books, journals, and direct mail advertisements.

In its closing announcement, Cenveo management blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming it “has adversely impacted our customers’ businesses and, in turn, has diminished the available work at the facility.” Perhaps COVID-19 was the catalyst. Or, perhaps it provided the excuse.

Without any inside knowledge or research, I suspect there were more basic forces and reasons at work. One was the continued decrease in our society’s use of, and reliance on, printed material, particularly anything that is more than a few paragraphs long. Second was greed. There was the greed of the Cadmus board to take a buyout that most likely meant big money to the senior management. Then there was the well-known propensity and greed of national conglomerates to buy up competitors, suck them dry, and then close them.

The sad story of the William Byrd Press and Cadmus would make a good business school case study as well as a case study of our modern economy.

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42 responses to “A Sad Emblem of Our Times

  1. Anybody still subscribing to one or more magazines? Not us…..wait! Twitter just beeped!

    • Two in print. Haven’t taken the Post since 2006 or 7. Wife thought it consumed too much of her time and was getting too expensive. Me, too expensive to read the media’s view of what it thinks I should know. What a shame as there are still some good reporters out there.

      • Many papers also provide a PDF version that is pretty much like the print version…

        but versions on phones for WaPo, NYT, WSJ are totally different.

        I “read” those versions when waiting in the lobby for an appointment or nowdays in the car while waiting to go to an appointment where seating is limited.

        In terms of actual print subscriptions coming to the house:

        Consumers Reports
        Bay Journal
        REC Cooperative
        and a slew of catalogs… still..

        A lot of my mail nowdays – at the PO BOX – goes in the trash can at the entrance doors… on the way out………

  2. Thanks for the article.

    A similar sad story for the venerable Free Lance Star in Fredericksburg that got sold to high bidders when their loan for their printing company – Print Innovators was sold because the bank determined that FLS and Print Innovators would not remain solvent and essentially forced bankruptcy.

    Gory details below:

    ” Sandton Capital submits top bid for The Free Lance-Star’s assets
    BY BILL FREEHLING / THE FREE LANCE–STAR May 22, 2014 Updated Dec 3, 2014

    ” Sandton purchased a loan from BB&T last summer that had been made to the FLS in 2007 to build Print Innovators, a commercial printing plant on Belman Road in Fredericksburg. The outstanding balance is about $38 million.”

    Ironically – Print Innovators was formed as a subsidiary to print the FLS and the Washington Examiner which ceased printing shortly after and went to all online.

    BH Media subsequently bought FLS, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Bristol Herald Courier, The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Danville Register & Bee, Martinsville Bulletin, Culpeper Star-Exponent and The News Virginian in Waynesboro but then sold them this past June.

    All of these operations are being further cut to almost-skeleton crew staffs.

    The shift away from print to online is ongoing and more and more printing companies are going out of business.

    The process of that happening is not pretty – basically they are dismembered and various pieces and parts of the assets sold off.

    • I miss the old Free Lance Star. It was once a great paper. I miss A.M. radio in Fredericksburg WFVA 1230. They used to play the classic pop standards of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

  3. Well, no doubt it was a good run for a single business, and a phenomenal run for an industry. What has it been, 4000 years since history’s record was kiln-fired? Dropping a book in the toilet has evolved into soaking your entire library. Minimize your risk, backup your phone and tablets in the cloud.

  4. Yep. Chairman Xi will take good care of your data….

  5. Two words: Kongo Gumi
    Est. 548 CE.

    “And this, too, shall pass” has for many replaced “Bless this food…”

  6. William Byrd Press printed Virginia Business magazine for the 16 years that I was there. I left in 2002, and it was obvious then that the printing business was in decline and consolidating. That was good for us — we were able to negotiate better rates from William Byrd.

    It’s a shame in a way. Every town and city had a slew of home-grown printing companies, small businesses that added vitality to the local business community. One by one, those companies have shut down as digitization eroded the market for printed product. Now Google, Facebook and social media rule. Local businesses have been supplanted by Silicon Valley.

    As I recall, Cadmus did try to transition to digital products with its academic journals. Management did see the changes coming. Perhaps they just did not move fast enough. I don’t know what happened after 2002.

    One of the main reasons I resigned from Virginia Business is that I was certain that the magazine business would be supplanted by digital media. Virginia Business has managed to survive. It still prints and distributes a magazine, but I suspect that its digital products (e-newsletters) are keeping the enterprise afloat.

    • Good comment. To add. before digital, people used to actually subscribe to various printed media, not only newspapers, but magazines, and even newsletters.

      Few of us could afford to subscribe to all of them – we’d have to choose between Popular Mechanics and Virginia Business – and for some of us it was no contest though we’d actually read older copies of Virginia Business in the Doctors or Dentists office to find one or two articles that interested us. More than once, I’d ask if I could take the magazine and they would invariably say yes… once, I just took it… still feel bad about that.

      But – few of us can afford all the online either so something else has changed. The folks that used to subscribe to these publications like Virginia Business have gone where – for their content?

      It seems that before paywalls went up – people who liked to read current events – chewed through the internet like a gigantic free smorgasbord.

      People still want quality content, I think – but not near as many as before – many more are satisfied with getting content from social media and blogs and such.

      So.. I don’t think digital per-se killed print.

      Do people who now get their “news” from social media – did they subscribe to print media before?

    • Still printing? Sure, people like to have something on the coffee table in the waiting rooms, out by the receptionist. Altho even then, everybody is nose down in the phone. That’s the one future change they missed on Star Trek (but they got the tablets….)

      Yes, Larry, newspaper subscriptions were far more common not that long ago, and widely read. Little Roanoke supported both evening and morning papers, and many households took both. The AM paper circulated from Bristol to Staunton, with home delivery. In my college apartment we got four dailies — Post, RTD, Daily Press and WSJ.

      Just about everybody watched one of three major news networks. Uncle Walter for us…..

  7. I cluelessly went to look to buy a tablet the other day. I had looked online but wanted to see some for sizing.

    Best Buy and Office Depot looked like a tornado had hit them in their tablet sections… took me a minute to recognize why!

    A couple years back the wife got a laptop – it had a “touch-screen” on it – something we both thought had no use on a computer even though we knew that’s the way that smart phones work.

    Turns out – she’ll never have another computer that is not touch-screen.

    So if we want to lament the technology disruption to print might want to attribute some of it to touch screens… I doubt seriously that flip phones and blackberries would have done digital media very well. Touch screens have had a huge impact.

  8. Why does anyone care whether humanity’s thoughts, expressed in words, appear on paper printed in ink or on a computer screen?

    I would also think liberals would be ecstatic about the demise of an industry that cut down zillions of CO2 to Oxygen converting trees while using a bevy of toxic chemicals to create ink.

    Cadmus died for the same reason that a lot of species go extinct – they didn’t evolve.

    • “liberals” and “digital”.

      oh no… coal-fired electricity!


    • “Why does anyone care whether humanity’s thoughts, expressed in words, appear on paper printed in ink or on a computer screen?”

      I can think of one reason why keeping paper copies of our most important documents might be a good idea: EMP.

      • Baconator with extra cheese

        And EMPs can come in manmade or natural flavor….
        But I can only dream of the day…. me, my dogs, and a lever action…. roaming the West… hunting tender millennials…

        • Funny you should mention lever actions. My next purchase is most-likely going to be a lever action rifle chambered in .38/.357 magnum. I’m still trying to decide among Rossi, Henry and Marlin. Between my wife and me we have [number redacted for security reasons] .357 mag revolvers so we already have plenty of ammo for it.

          Plus, in the unlikely event things get REALLY bad I think it’ll be a good idea to have a rifle and a handgun chambered for the same ammunition.

          • Baconator with extra cheese

            Great move and choice. 38 is effective on 2 legged varmin with low recoil and the 357 out of the rifle is not far from the performance of a 30/30. Plenty enough to knock down eastern game including well placed shots on a black bear if you used a non-expanding round.

          • B w/ec,

            My wife likes .38+P. It’s got more oophm than standard .38 Special but in a compact revolver it doesn’t beat-up your hand as much as .357 does.

        • A Boy and His Dog…

          Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.

      • Microfilm/microfiche takes less space and the readers (the old ones anyway) are immune to EMP. And you can use a microscope to look at them, in a pinch.

        I wonder if computer output microfilm is still used? EDIT: Yes, it is. Just found a company that does it.

  9. I worked for McGraw Hill for 18 years. When I joined in 1983 in dc it had dozens of business publications, the flagships being Business Week and Aviation Week and Space Technology. By the mid 80s, it started unloading biz pubs. Eventually BizWeek went to Bloomberg at a bargain after running a combined weekly subscription if a million globally. It is really too bad since I really liked magazine journalism.

    • Ah, back in the AMEX ownership days. AMEX bought McGraw-Hill and was going to liquidate the world’s largest publisher of textbooks when Bill Norris (one of the great humanitarians) wrote an oped declaring that if they go through with it his 35,000 employees will cut their AMEX cards in a ceremony.

    • Business Week was always one of the best publications. I always felt it was willing to step on anyone’s toes and didn’t preach. The Economist had good reporting, but began to feel a need to instruct its readers on how to think. Forbes and Fortune had their good and bad moments.

  10. For the most part, the move to digital has led to shorter, and less thorough, writing. Folks tend to have short attention spans with digital. (Those are generalities, of course. There are exceptions.)

    Personally, I cannot imagine reading a 600-page book on my computer screen. My eyes would burst from the strain. Also, it is much more comfortable to curl up in a comfortable chair with a book or magazine than sit at a desk staring at a screen. Finally, with a book (or magazine for that matter), I can underline or make notes in the margin.

    The environmental effects are a concern, but most paper comes from sustainable tree farms.

    • re: “curling up with a book”.

      yep – but if you have not tried a Kindle – you might,
      especially the Oasis or Paperwhite models.

      you can check out digital books from many libraries… My wife downloads several at a time and has enough books for weeks.

      some folks just like the paper page… we still get the newspaper for
      the kindle-user in the house.

      and agree, paper comes from timber grown for paper ..which is a tiny amount compared to what goes into an average house.

      • I have enough unread books in my house to last me for years!

        • ……….ditto and perhaps naively thinking in the past that a pandemic would be the perfect time to catch up. ain’t happening..

          unless a book is very, very good – I lose interest in it sometimes and I prefer non-fiction.

          One of my favorites many years ago was Kon Tiki .

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