Why Print's Not Going Away Anytime Soon

If you’re reading this, chances are your firm has survived the depressing recession of 2008-09. Perhaps your management team was forced to cut shifts or staff or institute work furloughs to weather the storm. Maybe your company was one of many that merged, as when Carlstadt, N.J.-based Unimac Graphics acquired bankrupt TanaSeybert of Manhattan last October. Around that same time, Printing News Editor Toni McQuilken asked if I’d like to write a bimonthly column on offset printing. The first thing I did was check my 2010 commitments via my Microsoft Outlook eCalendar. Not so very long ago, I would have cross-checked a printed Franklin Planner (remember those?), pen in hand.

Print is, in a strange way, like my grandmother-in-law, God rest her soul, but the lady talked about dying for at least 20 years before the inevitable eventually happened, when Gram was in her ripe-old late 80s. Similarly, the pending death of print has been forecasted for at least the past 60 years or so. I heard stories when I worked for R.R. Donnelley about how, as television technology emerged in the 1950s, naysayers said people would not read anymore. Ironically, TV Guide became the largest circulation magazine of its era. In the ’80s, computers changed our world forever and, again, the print medium was doomed by many pundits.

Within Donnelley, a new business unit profited handsomely from the printing of computer documentation. Then, in the 1990s, the Internet blossomed, and it was déjà vu all over again. After about a decade of paranoia, printers realized it didn’t need to be an either/or scenario—they can coexist with the online world.

On Christmas Day, for the first time in history, mega online retailer Amazon.com sold more electronic books than their paper counterparts. (Priced at just under $500, the Kindle eReader was its most-shipped gift item.) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who admits hardly ever reading books in print anymore, believes these single-day tallies may herald the end of printed versions. “No technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever,” he commented.

Mr. Bezos, Puleez...
Please, with all due respect, Mr. Bezos, save the drama. We’ve heard these claims before, and I haven’t even mentioned the “paperless office” of the future that was due to arrive in Corporate America twenty-something years ago. It must have slipped Bezos’ mind that Amazon-owned online shoe store Zappos.com had 750,000 48-page fashion catalogs printed and mailed just in time for the holidays. Why? Because Web sites supported by catalogs yield 163 percent more revenue than those not supported by catalogs. That’s what a U.S. Postal Service comScore survey revealed. Furthermore, almost every respondent to a study by Key Catalog/Multichannel Issues said that a printed catalog generated online sales. Sixty percent felt catalogs influenced at least half of all online sales, and Web site sales rise 20 to 50 percent after a catalog mail drop.

It’s not news that time and technology are altering print as we knew it, contributing to downward slides in both press run sizes and frequencies. “Today, other content distribution alternatives are shrinking the demand for printed pages,” noted former quick printer turned marketing consultant Mike Stevens. “That’s not good for printers who can’t comprehend the change. But, it creates mind-boggling opportunities … for visionary printers who understand the change and can adapt to it.” Stevens adds, “Print executives must envision themselves as ‘content distributors.’”

Savvy marketers know that using only one medium is far too limiting these days. “Different people respond to different media,” Aaron Magness, director for brand marketing and business development at Zappos, told The New York Times last December. In fact, integrated multimedia in print and online is the way most businesses market effectively today. Direct mail and e-mail/PURL combination campaigns are becoming the norm. Now there’s the added twist of Web 2.0 and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as well as mobile smart phones powered by 3G and 4G networks.

Newspaper Bailout?
For printed free-standing inserts, the recession’s more value-conscious consumers have driven heavier coupon usage, says Nielsen’s Homescan service. That positive tidbit aside, most news was not good for print in 2009. I won’t waste valuable space on this page redocumenting the myriad newspaper and magazine closings. Consumer magazine ad pages tumbled 25.6 percent last year, according to MPA. We also witnessed the sharpest percentage decline in U.S. ad spending since the Great Depression, reported AdAge.com. Magazines’ share of money spent on advertising is expected to decline faster than any other medium, except for newspapers, over the next 15 months. More open-minded magazine publishers are bending the rules of editorial ethics and selling ad space on their print properties’ front covers, including mainstream titles such as Entertainment Weekly, ESPN the Magazine, Esquire and Us Weekly.

On the flip side, Internet display advertising rose 7 percent in 2009. But Big Brother, in the form of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, may soon start clamping privacy regulations on the Internet frontier, changing the online ad game. As magazines and newspapers grapple with the issue of paid online content, the FTC held a two-day workshop in early December, discussing the latter’s challenges and exploring ways that the government might be able to help preserve the democratic hallmark of a free press. “News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

"In the digital printing arena, toner-based and inkjet output has steadily improved over the past 10 years, coupled with ever more sophisticated variable data and variable imaging. Yet, as we usher in the next decade of the new millennium, conventional sheetfed and web-offset presses are churning more efficiently than ever. Progressive companies boast about their new media strategies, but where does that leave good, old-fashioned ink on paper? 'What are we, ‘used media?’” asked one industry source. “I prefer to call it classic media.”

But a magazine column on offset printing? I must be crazy—like a fox!—and look forward to sharing more of my thoughts and hearing yours over the coming months.

See some of the latest equipment and software later this month, Feb. 25-27, at the Graphics of the Americas show in sunny Miami, www.GOA2010.com.

Based near Chicago, Mark Vruno is a business writer who has reported on the commercial print industry for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was executive editor of Graphic Arts Monthly magazine. E-mail him at markvmail@comcast.net. Readers can follow Vruno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MarkV_Chicago.