Don’t Get Your Printing Advice From a Printer Manufacturer

And other tips for small-run publications

A blogger on ZDNet wrote last week about changes in inkjet printing technology that could make offset printing obsolete. The piece suggested that small-circulation publications might soon be able to print in-house, rather than sending galleys out to large—and expensive—printing facilities.

I wondered why a tech-head publication like ZDNet would be spending time on the finer points of ink toner, but I read on anyway. (ZDNet’s reason for running the piece eventually became clear—more on that later.) The writer, “Doc,” weighs in on the debate that is apparently raging on printing-industry blogs. He writes:

First, inkjet and toner printing will get even faster and cheaper as time moves on… [and] the advantages in turnaround time will cause more people to utilize those methods.

Second, as variable-data printing gains ground, then you almost have to use inkjet or toner methods in order to customize the copies coming off the back end (offset is good at long runs but not at customization).

A commenter points out that the viability of inkjet versus offset completely depends on what it is you’re printing, how fast you want it, and what you’re willing to compromise: “You can have speed, quality or price…pick any two.”

Doc ends his piece with one final point for inkjet:

One of the disadvantages of offset printing is that most offset presses are not ‘on the network,’ and require a hand-off to a commercial printer. In our highly networked document world these days, the printing device almost has to be part of the network, and that’s where toner and inkjet have a strong advantage.

Perhaps. But isn’t this debate irrelevant, or at least increasingly obsolete, when a publication can now print on demand? POD services allow publications to remain on the network the entire time, from copyedit to sale, for no setup fee. Whether inkjet or offset, printing anything involves an initial cost. (Not to mention the rising costs of postage.) POD sites like MagCloud and ComixPress would seem like the smart way to go for small printing runs, because they require no initial investment and can also attract new readers to the product.

Hewlett-Packard’s two year old venture MagCloud seems to be the print-on-demand service most frequently mentioned in the press, especially in conjunction with the hypetastic 48 Hour Magazine experiment. There is no start-up fee; customers browse the titles on the site, and if they want to buy a copy of one of the magazines, they pay for one to be printed and shipped to them themselves. That’s got to be attractive to small publications: the process doesn’t just take care of printing, but some of the marketing and all of the distribution.

So far, not many publications that fall under the category of “News” have jumped on board with MagCloud. But there are some interesing-looking niche political and literary magazines already for sale there.

The American Society of Media Photographers conducted a survey of POD services, and what was surprising to me was not just how many companies provide affordable printing options, but how many also offer additional marketing and sales packages. Different POD companies market themselves to different types of clients, and not all services would necessarily be relevant to small-run newspapers or magazines. (For instance, POD service LuLu offers book authors extensive marketing packages that includes PR materials, entry into book fairs and expos and—really?—“honest, unbiased” book reviews. Paperchase, which seems to be geared more to photographers, sells gallery space in a building adjacent to the printing press so artists can exhibit their work right away.) But it shows that POD companies are thinking about publishers’ needs in creative ways.

After taking all of this into consideration, and wondering for a while why a ZDNet blog would proclaim inkjet technology the future of printing, I finally noticed that Doc’s blog is sponsored by RICOH. Wow. RICOH is a manufacturer of printers and copy machines. “Doc” is short for DocuMentor, and his blog is meant to “educate you about Document Management.” So essentially, I realized, I was reading and analyzing a blogpost written by someone like Microsoft’s Clippy.

I know that Ziff Davis has had its troubles, like so many other publishers, but, still, a sponsored blog surprised me. Surprised me so much that I wasn’t looking for the corporate logo and disclaimer, and didn’t even notice it until I had already read through the entire article. This is tricky and treacherous territory, especially for a publisher whose properties make their name on reviewing such hardware. (Full disclosure: my father is a journalist, and worked for many years as an editor at several Ziff Davis publications.)

The “Doc” character is especially confusing: he is clearly fictional (his bio includes the fact that “At MIT, Doc made a name for himself by transforming a large printer into a robot that hunts and eats Roombas”), but he also has his own Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. He is given a human face, shown nodding on a telephone at the top of the Web page, though shadowed in silhouette. And while advertorials are not a new concept to news organizations, it’s a real problem when those advertorials are presented in a way that makes them basically indistinguishable from articles not written by a fictional corporate avatar.

So, in conclusion, be careful what you read (see Curtis Brainard’s recent CJR piece on Pepsi’s doomed sponsorship of SEED Media here). Don’t get your printing advice from a printer manufacturer. And for your small-run publication needs, check out print-on-demand, which—along with, you know, the Internet—actually is the future of printing.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner