June 2002
The silent killer of print
Where has all the printing gone? This seems to be the most common complaint in the industry. The annual report market was a bust this year with a lot of public companies producing bare-bones reports. The financial printing market died with the collapse of mergers and IPOs. Book printing is shaky as a result of the Chapters and Indigo consolidation, and, now, problems with General Publishers (the main book distributor in the country) are not going to improve things. Direct mail is finally starting to show some life after the anthrax scare, and magazine and advertising printing got hit by the almost-recession.
Most of the downturn can be attributed to the usual up-and-down cycle of business markets. The fact that many printing markets have gone down at the same time has raised some concerns in the industry, however, volumes will return as we pass from the famine to the feast.
But, there is one thing coming out of this downturn that worries me and it could do long-term damage to the industry.

While still only a flicker, an idea that’s taking hold at some corporations is that printing is an expense that has to be eliminated, that its benefit does not justify the cost. Some companies and mutual funds now use the negative option approach: shareholders must tell the company they want to receive financial statements in print otherwise they will not be mailed out.
The idea of meeting only the minimum legal requirements in an annual report, as done by Onex and Nortel, is held by some as an idea that’s ahead of its time. It is becoming trendy in some business circles to put as little as possible on paper.
One paper company even had the bright idea of charging customers for printed monthly statements—e-mailed versions were free. (This is like General Motors not believing in the internal combustion engine.)
The reality is that, after 400 years, the printing industry is no longer growing faster than the economy. The value of printing is no longer selling itself. It is going to have to be sold by people in the industry. The modern annual report was introduced by IBM in 1955 to give more than just numbers to shareholders. It sold them on the future of the company. Now we, as printers, are going to have to sell the value of a well-designed, informative annual report with more than just numbers.

All manufacturing industries reach a point where they have to go out and sell the value of their product or face a slow, painful decline. Radio broadcasters reached that point in the ’50s and ’60s with the advent of television. Now, there are more radio stations in North America than ever with very profitable bottom lines. Radio has become very good at selling its value as a medium.
In the next 10 years, the printing industry will confront the same problem that radio did several decades ago. The power of printing as an effective medium will have to be sold to the business world. The ability of printing to push a company’s message out into the marketplace and the unique ability of print to deliver a targeted message to selected customers has to be promoted. The dynamics of selling printing is going to change more radically than ever before. The successful companies in this industry will be those that find a way of destroying the silent killers of print.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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