Would A Customized Newspaper Save The Industry?

from the we-may-find-out dept

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 and analysis 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.

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Comments on “Would A Customized Newspaper Save The Industry?”

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23 Comments
Joel Coehoorn says:

The problem is more complex than that. So they print 30,000 different editions, each customized for a particular subscriber. How do they get the right newspaper to the right subscriber? Not that this is an insurmountable challenge, but it will mean completely overhauling current distribution methods. Will you rely on 13-year-old paper boys to match up particular papers with the address?

Bill says:

eNews

The only benefit I can see is that personalized papers may save a few trees (at twice the cost of a full paper(30k production vs 60k/hr)). However, if they want to focus on eBook style papers then there is so much that they could do. Everything from animated graphs & charts, mini-movies of sports events, interactive ad pages, audio commentary, movie trailers and much more. It all comes down to how much effort they want to put into their digital format. I’ve seen this done with Chinese publications and it makes a world of difference (when compared to standard scanned ebooks).

Dan (user link) says:

extra, extra? Forget all about it.

What I really want is a reader that is comfortable to use anywhere: at the breakfast table, in the hammock, the tub, the subway station. And I will read books, blogs, news items, whatever–as long as I can read what I feel like reading where ever I happen to be. The “screen” has to be bigger than a blackberry, but fold-able, waterproof, and readable in the dark and in full sunlight. And, no, the Kindle isn’t it.

As for actual paper papers, I’ll find something else to line the bottom of my bird cages, thanks.

KX says:

newspaper?

Who’s read a decent newspaper anyway? Newspapers provide little other than trash and wasted trees. Digital is the cheapest, best bet for these people, but even then, I bet the number of readers would be scarce. People are inundated with news all day, every day. It gets annoying and it’s nearly always depressing. They rarely print news rather than opinion masquerading as news.

David Hammond (profile) says:

Distribution

Unfortunately, I suspect you haven’t taken a look at the newspaper distribution centers. Here’s basically how it works: You have mountains and mountains of stacks of each section of the newspaper. Cheap workers (usually illegal immigrants) work like machines putting one section onto the next to assemble the newspaper, fold, rubber band, and dump into the big sack for the carrier. The carrier goes out and at each customer’s house tosses whatever paper is at the top of the pile.

Sometimes you have a day when a single carrier is tossing two separate subscriptions on a single route, depending on the customer. On these days, lots of mistakes happen, and every mistake costs the company money. Remember, these are rather low-paid people tossing papers in the middle of the night, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in near pitch black, and this is often one of several separate jobs the carrier has. Plus, in order to get the job done on time, the carrier is expected to memorize the subscriptions of most of the customers.

Adding such a higher degree of complexity as you suggest could be devastating to the distribution centers.

DA says:

Ahh, yes- we're all just old school!

Being part of the printing industry myself, let me just say that a simple tour through a printing plant does not make you an expert in the field. I don’t know who told you about the inkjet technology, but let me assure you that if there is a better technology that comes along, it will replace the existing technology in a heartbeat. The fact of the matter is, digital technologies in print are not ready for prime time yet. All of us are trying very hard to get them to replace the existing tech- but there are still some major roadblocks with regards to cost and quality. What has worked in the past decade relates more to how files and art is handled, and this has generated huge savings. To insinuate that printing is an old technology is really quite silly. Just because the basic mechanical aspects of printing haven’t changed much- it really doesn’t mean the advancements are not there. In all reality, offset printing (along with the other major forms) has improved significantly the last few years. The machinery we are now using to do the same basic function is unbelievably advanced from an automation standpoint. Which means that we are producing far more with far less than we ever had. Bottom line- the so-called “future” technologies of print have just been unable to compete with a vastly superior and continuosly improving “old” technology.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Ahh, yes- we're all just old school!

Being part of the printing industry myself, let me just say that a simple tour through a printing plant does not make you an expert in the field

Um. I didn’t say that I was an expert in the field, nor would I suggest such a thing at all. What made you think I had?

I don’t know who told you about the inkjet technology

You see the underlined text in my post? It’s a link. To another story — which is what I based the post on. No one “told” me about inkjet technology — it’s in that article. If you want to complain about it, don’t complain to me, complain about the author of that article.

Just because the basic mechanical aspects of printing haven’t changed much- it really doesn’t mean the advancements are not there

Ok. Now I’m wondering if you even read my post at all. I made it quite clear in the post that the process has changed quite a bit over the years. You seem to have set up a strawman version of what you hope I said so you can knock it down. Please read what I actually said.

The machinery we are now using to do the same basic function is unbelievably advanced from an automation standpoint. Which means that we are producing far more with far less than we ever had.

Again, this is exactly what I said above. I’m not sure why you think I did not.

Bottom line- the so-called “future” technologies of print have just been unable to compete with a vastly superior and continuosly improving “old” technology.

Again, you seem to have not read the post before you attacked me.

Please read it again. I did not say this new technology could compete. In fact, that was my point. That it doesn’t have the same cost savings factor, meaning it would be more expensive, even if it makes the product better. Which is why I said it wouldn’t get adopted. That’s the same point you are making — and yet you attack me for it.

So, before you attack, please read and comprehend what I actually said. I never said I was an expert, yet you said I did say that. You made it sound as if someone random just “told” me (and lied) about the technology — but it was based on an article that is linked to in the post that you could read just as well as I can. You then suggested I didn’t mention about the advancements in the technology of printing — which I did. You also made it sound like I didn’t note that these new presses would be less efficient — which I did.

I always appreciate feedback from people who know about the space we’re discussing, but I don’t appreciate attacks from people who clearly decided what they think I wrote so they can attack it, rather than actually reading what I wrote.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: No Inkjet or Toner Based Press...

Can print 30,000 of anything an hour. Only traditional web offset5 presses can acheive these speeds. Who told you these numbers, did you ask if he had any extra weed left for you?

No one “told” me those numbers, it’s in the link to the article that I based the post on. If the numbers are not correct, you should ask the author of that article about it. When we write posts, they’re based on articles elsewhere — which we link to so you can find out more.

Mel (profile) says:

Halfway There Already?

A completely customizable news source is already available here: http://newsatseven.com/

“News at Seven gives you the news you want, the way you want it. Each day, News at Seven automatically generates a virtual newscast pulled from stories, images, videos and blogs all linked by a common news topic. News at Seven presents news, point/counterpoint, opinion, celebrity gossip and the occasional foray into the world of 3D gaming.”

This was developed at the Northwestern University Intelligent Information Laboratory (InfoLab). IIRC, you can choose many news topics, and also IIRC (from the article I read about it before it went live), the concept was developed specifically to be sold, when ripe, to a commercial entity for a profit to the University. If the concept takes off commercially, I can’t imagine it would be difficult to automate the creation of a printable PDF version of one’s customized news broadcast.

I’d say this makes us halfway there already.

Cevius Roth (user link) says:

DIGITAL

In an age where the vast majority of the 1st world has advanced mobile phones, digital seems like the most logical option.

As more and more wifi devices become commonly used, newsfeed “hotspots” set up at locations where they sell newspapers now could give you a copy you can read easier and probably faster than conventional methods.

Buy a single copy or subscribe to the newsfeed for a year.

For an industry that apparently jumps on the newest and best technology the second it comes around, they sure have been ignoring the digital side

toivo says:

“My God, Its the 21st century! Why does anyone need paper as a information substrate anymore?”

I do. There are stil many magazines that are doing quite well. It’s a balance, as text gows it’s more easire to read on the paper, but the newsier stuff will move to the web. The Economist and others are growing and have attracted more readers.

Inteligent writing + “sisu”

GLC3 says:

An insiders perspective...

I work for a financial newspaper that isn’t the WSJ :), but we do have online tools and a couple different online versions of the newspaper. We are still quite a ways off from customized newspapers, if it ever happens at all. However, last year our book division launched a customized book for institutional investors. We use an HP Indigo digital printer and customers can create their book on Friday afternoon and have it delivered to their doorstep the next day. However, this technology isn’t cheap and I think it will be at least a few years before it reaches the consumer level. I don’t think daily newspapers can justify the cost, but there a certainly other publications that can benefit from customized print content

Professeur Normal says:

one link further

I happened to follow the Agfa link in the Poynter article, and the Dotrix datasheet says ‘30.000 A4 pages per hour’, not 30.000 WSJ/h.

The WSJ being around 96 pages and more than 2.5 times bigger than a A4 format, the Agfa press could only print something like 125 WSJ per hour, which leaves us far behind the 60.000/h needed (that figure seem in the correct order of magnitude for a 2 million circulation).

Looks like a usable e-ink device might ship before we see a daily customized newspaper…

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