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Technology through a print buyer's eyes

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 AM


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As part of my ongoing series discussing the history of the printing industry over the past 25 years, I had intended to write about the merger and acquisition phenomenon that took the industry by storm in the late 1980s through the turn of the century. I actually started that column attributing the initiation of that trend in the mid-1980s to Mark Pope of Graphic Industries (Atlanta, GA). He was the first printing industry executive to begin to roll up other companies, both in and out of his local areas. The activity really began to accelerate when Joe Davis of Consolidated Graphics and Jerry Mahoney of MailWell (now Cenveo, led by Bob Burton) began the process in earnest by acquiring dozens of smaller printing companies. There were a handful of companies that tried to mimic the pioneers but failed miserably. American Signature, Master Graphics, and others whose names have been forgotten enticed sellers by offering a pot at the end of the rainbow of rising stock prices. But, it really never happened the way it was imagined.

As I got deeper into that column, I became bored with chronicling the depressing saga of print industry shrinkage. Then, I found a copy of a new magazine in my mailbox, published by AMERICAN PRINTER's parent company.

Right up my alley

Having been involved in print buying for more than 50 years, I was intrigued by this new publication, titled PRINT & MEDIA BUYER and described as “The Magazine for Media Professionals.” It provides a new target advertising opportunity for printers, large and small, to get their messages to print buyers. I wish I had thought of such a product. Mind you, I've been buying print since I was in junior high school. I don't want to show my age, but letterpress still was the primary process for printing. When I was the editor of the Roosevelt Reflector, I was part of a three-person production committee designated to select our supplier. Our press run was 1,000 (including a few hundred copies for the staff to take home so they could show their bylines to their families). The folio was six pages, and the first contract I signed was for a whopping $900, or $50 per issue for each of the nine during the school year. Of course, that price included typesetting and printing.

If you're not impressed with those numbers, consider my negotiations in high school. As editor of the Cleveland Heights High Black and Gold, I wore many hats. In addition to editing and writing, I also sold ads and dealt with our printer. With eight pages twice a month and a 1,500 print run, I had signed a yearly printing contract for $1,500.

Forays into print production

College interrupted my print buying career. The Ohio State Lantern had its own Linotype machines and its own sheetfed letterpress machine. I loved watching Otto run the typesetter and then lock up each page before putting it on the press, each day.

My technological journey as a print buyer went on hold until 1962. At that time, I was working for a magazine with a circulation of 150,000. It was being printed by Poole Brothers in Chicago. Our production manager told me of a new printing process — something called “offset.” We were to be the first business publication to use this new process, and it was an adventure I'll never forget. Gone were the hundreds of pounds of stereotypes with ad copy that had to be shipped from New York to Chicago each month. Now, we simply sent a small package of film to the printer.

Twelve years later, after becoming a publisher responsible for negotiating my own printing contracts, I encountered a new technology and was one of the first publishers to jump on the band wagon. It was called “cold type,” and publishers throughout the industry were calling me about the process I was touting. Newfangled computers rendered the Compugraphic obsolete, eventually, but it was an exciting time while it lasted.

Then, as publisher of a printing magazine in the late 1970s, I discovered a new way to scan and produce film. When I approached our production manager and told her I would be using output from these new scanners, she scoffed, “The quality won't be good enough.” But, she was wrong. Within two years, virtually all film was generated by machines from Scitex, Crosfield and Hell. They, too, were replaced by computer-generated files. At that time, I was negotiating for tens of millions of dollars in prepress and printing services. It was a long way from my $900 contract in junior high school.

In 1993, digital presses were introduced for the first time. It was an exciting period, though the early buyers of the equipment struggled for years to find their market. Most new technologies are adapted a year or so after their introduction. Not so with the digital presses. Though I've always felt technology was the answer to a marketer's solution to quick and short-run promotions, it took a while. But, maybe their time has come. The proposition posed on the cover of this first issue of PRINT & MEDIA BUYER is, “Offset or digital?”

Next month, I plan to write about my many experiences over the years as a print buyer. Even I still chuckle at some of that anecdotal history.


M. Richard Vinocur is president of Footprint Communications. E-mail him at mrvinocur@aol.com.