Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to take a "plant tour" at the Wall Street Journal's Palo Alto printing plant. It really was fascinating to learn how the paper is printed. There is a lot of technology involved -- though, much of it is rather old. The process of getting photo images of each page layout, etching them onto plates and then using those plates to print the pages is really impressive. In touring through the operation, it made me appreciate both how much effort goes into printing the newspaper each day and
how much capital costs newspapers have sunk into existing printing processes which must make it difficult for them to adapt. They really do have the process down to quite a science. The problem, though, is that the science part means that the only changes they're making are really about making the process itself cheaper or more efficient. For example, they're switching over from sending the layouts via satellite to sending them over the internet and the machines that develop the "negatives" used for each plate have become progressively more advanced and efficient over time (our tour guide noted that the machines we saw were the "3rd generation" since he'd started there a long time ago, and the original machines took up half a room). Also, the Wall Street Journal, like many newspapers, have shifted to a smaller format
that both saves newsprint costs and is much easier to use in the printing process.
However, with all this focus on efficiency, will more creative ideas on how to make a better
product get left behind? We've talked about how newspapers need to stop thinking of themselves as being newspapers and focus more on being news organizations
who can provide both useful data
that people can use as they need it. For the most part, it seemed likely that newsprint itself didn't fit all that well into that world. However, having just seen how the printing process works, it was interesting to read this article over at E-Media Tidbits that notes that there are new printing presses available today that could print totally custom newspapers
. The technology would actually allow every newspaper printed to be different, so you could customize the printed paper to each subscriber's interests. It's a slightly different process than the existing one, basically using very fast inkjet printers rather than the traditional plate method, but it can still print about 30,000 papers an hour (if I remember correctly -- and I might not -- the WSJ folks said they can print 60,000 per hour). Of course, it would involve changing the current printing process, and not for efficiency's sake, but to make the product itself more appealing.
The question, though, is whether or not the newspaper industry is willing to go in that direction, making a better product, rather than just a cheaper one? With so much pressure on the industry from its investors to cut costs or to just focus on digital distribution, it seems difficult to believe that investors will be happy with plans to buy new printing press technology that isn't quite as fast and uses more expensive ink. Of course, all of that leaves aside the question of whether or not an individually customized newspaper really is compelling enough to make that kind of investment worthwhile. The problem might be that it's only interesting to people on the margin. Kids who have grown up "net native" see no reason to use a paper newspaper at all -- no matter how customized. Newspaper loyalists are still perfectly happy with their non-customized papers anyway. So it's just those folks in-between -- and it might not be worth it to make all these changes just to satisfy that group.