Stop the presses! Ink jets print news!


Can high-volume ink jets compete with the rotary press for short runs?

The rotary press is one of the familiar icons of newspapering because it is the formative technology upon which the mass market daily has been built. Invented in the mid-19th century, it offered the ability to produce large runs at low cost, enabling newspaper pioneers like Joseph Pulitzer to design more eye-grabbing pages at prices affordable to the working stiff and modern newspaper journalism was reborn.

More than a century later the newspaper suffers a terrible cost disadvantage vis a vis the Web as an audience-getting medium, and many wonder whether paper is passe as a presentation vehicle for news.

Against this backdrop Poynter Institute editor Amy Gahran writes about the emergence of high-volume, low-cost inkjets. Her blog is based on research done by newspaper consultant Vin Crosbie who talks about Short Run Digital Printing (SRDP) systems from Kodak U.S.A., Océ of Belgium, Fuji Xerox in Japan, and Agfa in Germany. He writes:

“For example, Agfa’s Dotrix duplex press can print 30,000 tabloid (A4) sized, four-color editions per hour (500 pages per minute). This newspaper press cost about one-quarter what a plated presses does and requires only a single person to run . . .  (but) . . .  inks for SRDP presses cost much more than those for plated presses . . .  (and) are now economical to purchase and operate only for daily newspapers of less than about 10,000 circulation — although that number is expected to double within two years and continue climbing. This would make SRDP presses economical for about 400 of the 1,450 U.S. dailies today, and double that by 2010.”

Gahran makes the following observation which I share wholeheartedly:

“What if, instead of relying on larger, centralized printing plants and expensive transportation networks for physical distribution of printed papers, newspapers (even big dailies) instead relied on much smaller, more geographically distributed printing plants closer to the papers’ final destinations?”

Short run printing opens up the sort of game-changing possibilities for newspapers that the rotary press afforded Pulitzer and his cohort. Only now the direction is reversed. Now the world wants niche or personalized news . . . and while it remains to be seen whether this technology or something like it will extend the lifespan of print and allow it to compete with the infinitely customizable web, I think the answer is yes. Convenience, disposability and graphic appeal will, I think, continue to preserve a place for printed communications . . . making the only question whether newspapers can make the cultural shift necessary to decentalization.

Over the last 100 years newspapers have become massively centralized behemoths. Media moguls want to merge and create bigger monoliths, that would include radio and television stations (see cross-ownership debate for more). Yet I think that modern life demands that big institutions be broken into smaller bits. And here is a technology for accomplishing that in print. Now that Gahran and Crosbie have brought it to my attention, I will look for more on this production breakthrough.

P.S. In looking for background on Crosbie I found an article he wrote  for in 2004 that makes this observation abiut the switch from mass to customized manufacturing: “continued mass production of generic products is as dead or dying a concept as powering presses by steam.” Amen!