What’s Making The New York Post ‘s South Bronx Color-Printing Plant So Far Behind Schedule-and Over Budget?

It looks a little bit like Oz in the South Bronx: a giant, glittering, brand-new, $250 million printing plant for the New York Post, wedged into the Port Morris coastline. It has views of the Empire State Building, the Triborough Bridge and Riker’s Island from its windows. And it has an irascible Australian owner who’s been waiting more than five years to pull its expensive strings.

Delayed numerous times, the Post expects the printing plant to open for business in May. At first, the new presses will print the standard Post in black, white and red–but later this year, News Corp. executives hope to finally, at long last, put out a full-color tabloid. “We’re excited,” said Post publisher Ken Chandler.

That’s a major understatement. Rupert Murdoch didn’t blow a quarter billion in the Bronx and flex some serious political muscle just to make the troops on Sixth Avenue happy. The new plant–and the color Post –is designed to shake up the New York newspaper war and shoot a big, burning arrow in the direction of the other city tabloid, the New York Daily News.

Of course, it’s taken the Post an embarrassingly long time to catch up with the last 15 years’ worth of publishing technology. When everybody from The Times to the Middletown Times Herald-Record is printing in color, it’s hard to praise a paper for stepping into 1994, never mind 2001.

And, truth be told, there’s still some time before Post woods like the recent classic “TALK OR DIE” (assessing the feds’ case against alleged spy Robert Hanssen) are accompanied by full-color imagery. The four presses in the Bronx plant will be brought on one at a time, so it will take at least several months before the paper has fully phased out its South Street printing facility.

Barry Mechanic, the Post ‘s vice president of operations, said there were two principal delays in the new plant’s construction. First, there was News Corp.’s struggle to wrest control of the Port Morris property from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he said. Then there were delays caused by the financial troubles at Goss Graphic Systems, the Westmont, Ill.-based manufacturer of the Post ‘s new color presses.

“Our manufacturer went into Chapter 11,” Mr. Mechanic said. “That was the largest single issue.”

Mr. Mechanic added that it also didn’t help when Goss had a fire in one of their warehouses that damaged some of the equipment the Post had ordered.

So far, Mr. Mechanic said, three of the four presses are already in the building, and the fourth is currently under construction. Paper has already been run through one of the presses, he said.

But it ain’t just bricks and mortar over there in the South Bronx. The Post printing plant is the result of five years of delicate, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. To secure the land for News Corp., the Empire State Development Corporation, a public entity, struck a deal to buy the lot from the M.T.A., which had been using it as a bus depot.

The loss of the bus depot, however, meant that buses would have to be parked elsewhere in the city, and environmental activists in Harlem–one of the original places considered for relocation of the buses–were concerned that the exhaust from the idling buses would aggravate already high rates of asthma in children. The buses were eventually dispersed elsewhere in the city, primarily along the West Side Highway.

And then there was money. It wasn’t until March of 1998 that the M.T.A. finally approved the sale of the Port Morris property. But the money behind the land purchase didn’t come from Rupert’s pockets–it came from taxpayers’ wallets. Governor George Pataki pushed to dispense $12.9 million in state money for the deal, an effort initially blocked by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, but finally approved in July 1998.

In addition to the state funds, the Post is receiving $2 million in city Empowerment Zone funding, as well as an energy abatement from the New York Power Authority worth $1.8 million a year. Such deals are not unheard of; after all, The New York Times got a whopping $29 million in aid for its Queens printing plant, and the News got significant tax breaks for its facility in New Jersey.

Now, with its new plant on the verge of opening, the Post has been showing off the new waterfront digs to its staff, shuttling tour buses to the South Bronx for walk-throughs at the spiffy, weatherproof underground loading docks and the rail line that goes right into the plant.

“It’s awesome!” said managing editor Marc Kalech, adding: “It’s state-of-the-art; it’s clean!”

Clean, of course, is a big improvement over the Post ‘s current plant on South Street, which harbors plenty of foul odors–and fouler invaders. “South Street is right on the water, and there are rats in the parking lot,” Mr. Kalech said.

They haven’t been the only problems at the South Street plant. Last November, one of the presses caught fire, temporarily taking it offline.

How the Post ‘s entry into 21st-century living color will play with New York City readers, of course, is an open question. Before the Daily News began regularly printing full-color on its front pages in late 1999, the two tabloids were in a race to get to color first. The News had purchased its presses in 1996, and for a brief time was printing color in 1997. Trouble with inkers–also manufactured by Goss–produced a pinkish-orangeish hue, however, and the paper was forced to go back to black and white for more than a year while the inkers were replaced.

Naturally, the News’ experience going to color–and even these days, that paper blurs the definition of the term–suggests that the transition can be anything but smooth.

“None of these are easy jobs,” said one craft-union representative for printing plant workers at the Post , who asked not to be identified. “There’s always bugs to be worked out.”

That worry suggests that the Post ‘s goal to start color editions in the fall may be too ambitious. After all, it took the News nearly three years to get their color presses up and running.

But the $250 million price tag represents a major investment for the Post and its corporate parent News Corp., and the paper–which operates at a loss–has been looking to trim costs lately. There have been about four fewer pages per paper (two taken from the news section and one each from the entertainment and sports sections); and with the new printing plant, the Post will be reducing its page dimensions to the size now used by the News.

Mr. Chandler, the publisher, acknowledged the cost-cutting. “The analogy I’d use is when you want to stay as fit as you can,” he said. He added: “We won’t do anything to compromise the editorial quality of the paper.”

But some in the Post newsroom suspect that Mr. Murdoch, with the prospect of big bucks on the line, may be keeping a closer eye on the tabloid. For example, he made a rare appearance at the Post ‘s afternoon story meeting Wednesday, March 14. In the meeting–in which department editors report in on what they have for the next day’s paper–Mr. Murdoch was described as an active and occasionally prickly participant.

“I noticed he was growly,” said one Post source. “I just thought he was in a bad mood.”

It was muy bizarre seeing Dave Eggers on the lineup for the “Marketing Smarter” seminar at the Inside-Publisher’s Weekly book-publishing conference in Times Square on Monday, March 19. After all, the increasingly diva-esque McSweeney’s chieftain flipped his curly lid a month ago, after New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick had the temerity to suggest, among other items, that Mr. Eggers had made savvy marketing decisions in the planning of the paperback version of his semi-autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Mr. Eggers must have thought his presence was incongruous, too, because just before the seminar began, Inside chairman Kurt Andersen was vewy, vewy careful to point out that his best-selling guest was “entirely unaware” that he was dumped in a lineup about something as unseemly as … marketing . Clearly worried that he wouldn’t be able to wander around Carroll Gardens without getting egged by Mr. Eggers’ dogmatic followers, Mr. Andersen attributed the mix-up to his own “passive-aggressive” motives.

Then Mr. Andersen eased back in his chair and gingerly Charlie Rose’d Mr. Eggers for some 45 minutes. The former Might publisher, who’s back living in the Bay Area, did his standard aw-shucks schtick and tried to build a case that he and his brethren are simply nice people trying to publish some nice books. Describing a new McSweeney’s Books title by author Amy Fusselman, Mr. Eggers summed: “She wrote the book, I put it through Quark, we found a great artist to do the cover and we promote it on the Web site–and that’s about it.” He added: “There isn’t this vast marketing-machinery apparatus.”

But Mr. Eggers’ self-styled image as a pub-biz guerrilla wasn’t playing in front of a crowd with more than a healthy dose of peppy salespeople, marketers and publicists. These folks, it’s clear, have grown a tad weary of the Heartbreaking Genius’ moaning and groaning, and they think Mr. Eggers needs to show some ‘spect for the grunts who believe they had a big hand at making him a Big Deal–or, as Mr. Anderson ickily termed him, the “Oprah of the alternative world.”

Consider the moment when Mr. Anderson asked if fat deals with major publishers–Vintage paid $1.4 million for the paperback rights to Heartbreaking Work , for example–helped him develop his own McSweeney’s imprint.

“Whatever success my book had,” Mr. Eggers said, “I attribute it almost entirely to the help of these independent bookstores. They’re incredibly supportive of us.”

There were a few quiet groans. Behind Off the Record, someone whispered, “What about S.&S.?”–referring to Simon & Schuster, which published the hardcover version of his first book.

Indeed, one woman in the audience stuck up for Mr. Eggers’ publisher. “I mean, you got a lot of media coverage. It would be naïve to not credit the marketing and P.R.,” she said.

But Mr. Eggers wasn’t into giving the big house much credit. “Yeah, but the media stuff with that book was weird,” he said. “Like, they did a great job with radio and that sort of thing. But a lot of that [media coverage] was coming from outside of their sphere of influence.”