Getting down to the real issue
Finding an excuse to celebrate is not difficult, a birthday, a wedding anniversary, a promotion at work, any excuse whether trivial or significant can be an excuse for party time, for a celebration invariably has a good feel to it and party time it is at Middle East Printer - this publication heralds the start of its second decade.
The MEP is a rare breed these days; it has prospered these past 10 years in a business climate that has both waxed and waned and has seen many well known trade magazines of diverse kinds and hues fall by the wayside. I have been associated with the magazine since its inception and I feel a warm sense of pride for I am sure MEP has flourished thanks to its enduring editorial ethos of integrity. On a broader front, the reason for a decline in trade publishing has often been attributed to the Internet and while there is some merit in this view I think the success of MEP in achieving a decade of successful publishing suggests those who blame the Internet for their demise is an over simplification.
Advertising support is key to a magazine’s success even though an advertiser’s priorities are not necessarily the same as the readers; MEP has under the leadership of Morteza Karimian and Eskander Jahanbani managed month after month to strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting needs of providing what its readers want to know about their industry and the more pragmatic message an advertiser often seeks to convey.
A paean of praise to celebrate 10 years is all very well, but getting down to the real issue of celebrating a decade is surely to take a look back over the shoulder and seek out industry-wide lessons that may be learnt from living through what has been a profound period of change. Ten years is a rather good slice of time to carry out such a task; the scale is great enough to establish where change has been the greatest, yet small enough to see how a pattern of the future is unfolding.
I have been working or been associated with the printing industry for over 50 years, I began my career when letterpress was the dominant technology, yet the switch to offset took place less than a decade later and while the shift to offset was at the time significant, it was hardly destabilising. There were few major employment issues, workers were retrained, and the mindset of managers grasped very quickly the productivity benefits of offset, a system of production that was faster by several factors. My first three decades could be noted for stability rather than dynamism. Printing continued to play an important and respectable role in the society until the advent of digital technologies. At first a trickle of changes, photo setting shifted to Postscript, enabling desk top publishing systems incorporating RIPs to come to the fore, but the most significant changes came with the development of CTP. Within a two or three years, 14 out of every 15 workers in the reprographic section of our industry became redundant and these past two decades have wrought changes to both working practices and the type of machinery used; almost as if a digital Niagara Falls had come tumbling over the market place.
I am still not too old to learn lessons and one this past decade has taught me is a fundamental one and it is this: just as energy can’t be destroyed, but merely converted to another form and in doing so a little of the original is lost, often in quite obscure ways and so it is with knowledge.
The enormous changes that have taken place over this most recent decade and covered so succinctly by MEP I might add, is the change in the way a printed page is used. We have seen the implementation of accumulated knowledge from more than two generations being put to work in a totally different way. In Western style economies almost as much print is being produced today as it was a couple of decades ago, what has changed so dramatically is the methodology being used and its place of production. This has resulted in a staggering increase of productivity per worker employed. By way of example, a team of 30 or 40 workers producing a nightly newspaper now put on the shop floor a volume of print that may have taken 200 to produce 10 to 15 years ago. I can be quite bizarre to see reels of newsprint being delivered to and mounted on a press automatically without a body in sight.
This is just one facet of how our industry has changed; at the beginning of 2003 when the nascent MEP was born, print was produced and then distributed, a practice that gave around one sixth of a nation’s working population a job. My word how this has been turned on its head; probably half our print is now distributed electronically and then printed at its final destination. Along the way many of the processes involved in producing a printed page that were so important a decade or two ago have been lost.
But have these processes really been lost or has the knowledge of how to produce print like energy, merely been converted to another form?
I think we have seen knowledge just being shifted to a different place and a different form. Take a modern six or twelve colour sheet fed printing press: The plates can be mounted and removed automatically and the ducts preset with a precision that if manual intervention was to take place, productivity would suffer. It is possible to go on and on how our industry has changed over the past decade, the shredding of jobs, the advent of A4 desktop printers, the use of electronic mail: this point must now be embedded in the thickest of skulls.
It is true a modern press is amazingly efficient, reliable in performance and would be largely unfamiliar to a printer of the 1980s, but this change hasn’t come about by accident, the major German press manufacturers retrained its labour force, carried out massive research and development, had students go to university to ensure they were in a position to embrace unfolding technologies and this pursuit of knowledge squashed jobs in one area, but created jobs elsewhere, just like the conversion of energy; electricity to hot water.
However whenever there is change whether energy or knowledge there is a downside or loss and this is known as entropy. Knowledge takes a more human form usually in the loss of jobs, while with energy changes are hidden. Take the kettle of water; using electricity to have the water go from cold to hot is effective certainly, but if the energy in the coal was used directly to heat the water, the water would have boiled much more quickly and efficiently. Our printing industry in the Western economies is now feeling the full effect of what I would describe as “knowledge entropy”
Our ability to produce print in a way that society now prefers it has plateaued, any further productivity improvements even if they can be identified would appear to require an investment (whether human or mechanical) in cost and resources greater than the value of any subsequent benefits delivered.
In the 1980s and 90s, employment on the shop floor across the print production sector plummeted - a manifestation of entropy brought about by the transfer of the knowledge and skills involved in producing print from the worker to the machine itself. However while these enormous changes were taking place, the fortunes of press manufacturers and other related support services prospered as the owners of the production equipment strived to stay competitive. There was a rush to implement the much productivity and ease of use benefits digital technologies was able to offer.
All fires burn brightly at first, and the golden decade or so enjoyed by the manufacturers began to dim by the mid 2000s and the major players such as Heidelberg, manroland and KBA found themselves enduring a pain as great as any experienced by their customers. Here entropy was more of a management issue; the 1990s saw press manufacturing become state of the art, the technology changes implemented are capable of dealing with the demand for many years to come; in fact current investment is quite literally capable of producing more product than any foreseeable demand could expect. The past five years has seen a cull of senior managers and a business reconstruction of most of the brightest names in German, US and Japanese press manufacturing.
The MEP has straddled this period of enormous change, comprehensively providing coverage of news and reporting with fairness and often with considerable depth. The past decade of course has not all been doom and gloom and so it has been with MEP. An analysis of its news content will show that more editorial space has been devoted to reporting the positives of the Middle East print scene than the downsides, but there needs to be recognition that our printing and communications industry still has a long way to run before stability is likely to return. The battle for the high ground will ebb and flow for many years to come and it is not clear yet how the huge investments the big digital print players such as Hewlett Packard, Canon, Fuji and the likes have made will pan out. It is difficult not to see some major casualties occurring.
The Middle East Printer over the coming decade is certain to have a role to play in providing covering news of how the industry is faring. Though quite what form it will take is less easy to predict, the Internet, direct mail feeds and organising trade shows will continue to figure in its plans, but perhaps the only certain prediction MEP is prepared to make is that it will continue its policy of integrity and fairness, it will sift and weigh its investigations, news sources and general coverage to ensure a balanced view is being presented of the matters MEP feels as being important.