On Nov. 13, the 80-year-old Lillie chain of newspapers will lay off the last of its two pressmen. Their departure, along with several others in recent days, including managing editor Holly Wenzel, a 25-year employee of the family-owned company, paints a dire picture for the company’s survival.
According to several former employees, the chain — which includes the Ramsey County Review, the East Side Review and the Bulletin-branded papers serving the east metro — may be cleaning up its balance sheet in hopes of attracting a buyer, with the most frequently mentioned one being Press Publications out of White Bear Lake, which currently publishes eight suburban papers.
To that prospect Carter Johnson, publisher of the Press group, says coyly: “We will always look carefully at possible acquisitions.”
Departed Lillie employees say the group currently publishes in the neighborhood of 40,000 to 50,000 papers each week, in addition to running commercial contract printing operations off its press.
In 2006, the chain was touting a run of 120,000 a week. Lillie’s co-owner, former state Sen. Ted Lillie, insists the 40,000-50,000 figure “is not accurate” and that the actual number is “nearer to 100,000.”
The pressmen’s union, Teamsters Local 1M in St. Paul, confirms the two remaining pressmen have been given their notice. Union spokesman Jim Slimmer says Lillie has provided the union with contractually required information regarding the layoffs.
One of the ex-Lillie employees says the company has been “in bad shape for a while,” struggling with the same loss of advertising as larger chains, but further hampered by a long-strained relationship between the two principal owners, Lillie and Jeff Enright, who are both grandsons of founder T.R. Lillie. “I don’t believe they’re even on speaking terms. And in a struggling industry you have management coordinated looking for some way to survive.”
“The White Bear people seem the only reasonable purchaser out there,” says another. “The guess is the Johnson people have told Ted and Jeff that they have to do the dirty work of the layoffs and cost-cutting before any deal goes down.”
To that, Carter Johnson says, “Since the Great Recession — I think that’s what they’re calling it, right? — a lot of papers have had to make very difficult decisions.” Calls to ECM Publishing, the area’s largest suburban newspaper chain, requesting comment on the Lillie layoffs and the state of suburban newspapers were not returned.
Ted Lillie deflects the question of actively seeking a sale, preferring to paint a picture of a retrenchment. He does say he has had conversations with “suitors.” But that first and foremost the plan is to reorient the paper for a future less committed to paper than today and more tuned to the Internet, something that very much echoes a common industry theme. He also says his company will still operate the contract printing business.
Lillie is also the current president of The Taxpayers League of Minnesota, a fact that resonates when he says, “I’m very concerned about what’s happening to information. We’re living in a time when instead of getting information that is broad-based, people are going more and more to information that is specific and narrow.”
As for his relationship with Enright, Lillie says, “Any time there’s a partnership there are going to be challenges. But I don’t think that is one of the main reasons for our situation today.
“The bottom line for us,” he says, “is that a number of long-term, gifted, quality people are leaving. It’s a sad day for us, a sad day for the industry and a sad day for those employees. I wish it were different.”