Waiting in the Wings

Digital print awaits its crossover moment into the U.S. newspaper publishing market
By: W. Eric Schult
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Waiting in the Wings

Taylor Swift made the conversion from country to pop music. Can digital printing, likewise, expect to achieve its crossover moment in 2016, shifting from a technology primarily serving a niche in the commercial print industry to broader use among newspaper publishers?

Press vendors KBA and manroland, both having developed disparate solutions associated with digital printing, have been trying to gain traction in the U.S. newspaper market for several years. While they’ve had some successes abroad—mostly with short-run, on-demand book and industrial print applications—neither has managed yet to place their digital equipment with a newspaper publisher or printer in the continental United States.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a RotaJET into a newspaper environment yet,” said Bruce Richardson, national sales manager for KBA, regarding that company’s digital print line. “We’re working on that.” The company has sold two digital machines abroad to non-newspaper customers.

The story is similar for manroland. “Until now, we haven’t sold any of our systems in the U.S. for that application,” said Ron Sams, vice president of sales, regarding the FoldLine, manroland’s digital finishing solution targeted at newspapers.

However, the company has sold a FoldLine to Gannett for its use at a newspaper it owns on the island of Guam, a U.S. holding.  “The Pacific Daily News (in Guam) will be printed with a Kodak Prosper 5000 and a manroland FoldLine finishing system,” Sams said. The equipment will be installed during “the first or second quarter of next year.” The company has sold 23 digital finishing systems abroad, mostly to non-newspaper customers.

Waiting in the Wings
Inside Topweb, LLC, a commercial printer in Chicago that runs two lines of TKS JetLeader digital presses.

But there’s nothing like a local success story to use as a proof of concept, and Sams and Richardson refer to examples in Boston and Chicago, respectively, where digital printing has gained a small foothold in the newspaper sector, albeit using systems their companies did not provide. The Boston Globe, for example, recently began using digital inkjet print heads from Kodak, integrated into its offset press lines, to run a variable data advertising campaign for a local grocery chain. Topweb LLC, a commercial printer in Chicago, is running two digital print lines from press vendor TKS to produce short- and intermediate-run daily and weekly newspapers, an initiative it launched in 2012 and has been ramping up ever since. Both are first-of-a-kind case studies that could show the way forward for the successful use of digital printing technology in the U.S. newspaper market.

The Boston Example

Ron Sams
Ron Sams, manroland vice president of sales

According to Richard Masotta, vice president of operations for the Boston Globe, the paper put a pair of Kodak Prosper S20 digital print heads to practical use in mid-October—a little less than a year after the first unit was installed on one of the paper’s existing offset press lines and testing began.

“We were trying to get some traction with the ad department,” he said. “Just recently we were able to score a supermarket.”

The idea behind integrating a digital print head into an existing offset press line is that it adds the ability to provide variable data to one side of a single Web of newsprint, without sacrificing press speed. The digital print heads being employed in Boston can print a four-inch wide band of information, running in the direction that the Web is running on press. Essentially, it enables customized messaging on up to two columns on a broadsheet page or an area four inches deep across mating pages of a tabloid product.

“The limiting factor is up till now it’s been one color,” Sams said, “But still, that’s very powerful when you think about the possibilities with variable data, targeting specialized…information to a party of one.”

The application, in the Globe’s case, involved leaving a space on the black plate of a color display ad for its grocery advertiser so that the digital print head could deliver a unique code to every ad printed and newspaper delivered. Thereafter, “you go to (the advertiser’s) website and plug in the code,” Masotta explained, and “there’d be a specific offer for each code, anywhere from $5 off your grocery order up to $25 off a $75 purchase.”

 

The approach provides added value to advertisers trying to assess the effectiveness of their print advertising dollar and distinguish the audience they’re reaching.

“It gives direct access to data for return on investment for them,” Masotta said. “They know how many people are coming to the website. It allows them to pick up demographic information on people who actually read the newspaper and acted on their code. It gives them the ability to change the offers on the fly (and) it’s got unlimited potential…Obviously, we’re going to try to continue to make newspapers more relevant, and this is just another way.”

manroland
Inside Topweb, LLC

The model has had some success abroad, in Europe and Asia, he noted, “but no United States paper has tried it, so we thought we’d give it a shot. It looks like it’s going to work pretty well.” The paper’s grocery advertiser has three more ads coming, he said. “That’s more than a toe in the water.”

For now, the Globe’s digital printing capabilities are limited by the Web configurations available on the two double-wide, double-round press lines it uses to print the main sections of the paper—each line having one digital print head positioned “on one of the towers just before the folder,” according to Masotta. The paper, however, is building a new production facility in Taunton, Mass. to be fitted with single-wide, double-round press lines that will provide more flexibility in where variable data may be integrated into the paper.

Individualizing content targeted by address and recipient is another goal for the paper, Masotta said. “We’re working on taking one of these (digital) heads to our inserters for our direct mail business. We’re already putting your address on (the direct mail preprint jacket) because it’s delivered by the post office. So, as long as I know who you are and (as long as) we’re distributing at a sub-zip level, I could give you a (specialized) offer with your name on it.”

“I don’t know how many (digital print) heads we’ll end up with,” Masotta continued. “Kodak has been very good about agreeing to sort of a lend/lease-to-buy option, which (allows us to) get out there and work it with the sales department and get some customers—obviously to a larger goal. Let’s see how it takes and see what we get for customers.”

The Chicago Example

Rod Winscott
Rodd Winscott, Topweb president and general manager

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Rodd Winscott, president and general manager of Topweb, has gone all-in on digital printing, using a very different business model. Essentially, he has positioned the company as a commercial print site for national and international papers (among other segments) that want to produce short-run editions of their papers for distribution in the Chicago market.

Key to doing that was his investment in 2012 in the first of two TKS JetLeader digital printing presses. “We saw it at Drupa,” Winscott said. “We felt that our time had arrived and the press manufacturer’s time had arrived, so we kind of put a package together, and by September of 2012, we had it running in our location in Chicago.”

The TKS JetLeader, like KBA’s RotaJET and solutions by Kodak and HP that manroland markets with its FoldLine finishing system, is a stand-alone digital Web press that can print variable data to every page in full color. Each of the digital press lines at Topweb can produce a 72-page newspaper, four-color throughout, in up to five sections.

“That’s something that even our offset equipment, which is reasonably expensive, can’t do. Not in one press pass,” Winscott said.

The advantages of these systems over offset, aside from their ability to produce variable data newspapers, is near-instant changeover from one edition or one print job to the next, with no setup, no plates to hang on press, and virtually no waste. The systems are also more compact than offset presses.

“We have two digital presses and a full complement of peripheral devices in a 5,000 square foot space. You could set it up in a storefront,” Winscott said. “There are no special foundations. There are no special electrical requirements. It’s good to go out of the crate.”

The minimal requirements make for a quick installation and go-live, too. “We got crates in on Aug. 1 of 2012, and by Sept. 1, we were running savable copies,” Winscott said.

The niche for this kind of equipment, though, is newspaper printers and publishers with a high volume of short-run, quick-changeover print work. The savings is in the elimination of plates, waste and setup labor, all of which is much higher (by percentage) with shorter runs.

“If you have a lot of volume in the 3,000 to 6,000 to 7,000 circulation range,” KBA’s Richardson said, that’s a good fit for these dedicated digital print systems, “but you need to have the volume to do this. If you have just two or three newspapers with that kind of circulation, you’re buying a whole lot of machine for not a lot of work.”

The target circulation for any newspaper printing on Topweb’s digital presses is “anywhere from 100 copies to 7,000 to 9,000 copies, depending on the number of pages,” Winscott said. “We’re currently printing five different daily newspapers on (the JetLeaders). We just started printing the NY Post for the Chicago edition.”

“The limiting factor is obviously speed,” Winscott said. “Speed is a funny thing with digital because you’re working all from one roll of paper, so the number of pages that you’re producing…is what determines how many copies you’re going to get per hour.” His JetLeaders, which run at about 500 linear feet per minute, produce a yield of 7,400 copies per hour for an eight-page, but slow to 1,000 copies per hour for a 60-page, according to Winscott. “The larger the number of pages, the slower the press.”

Topweb balances out its commercial print capabilities with traditional offset printing equipment—four towers of Goss Community and four towers of Goss Universal 75. Longer print jobs run on those presses instead of the JetLeaders.

“We’ve tried to position ourselves so we can produce the smallest to the largest in quantity,” Winscott said.

He noted, however, that he’s seeing growth in the short-run segment of his business for which the JetLeaders were purchased. “We are working with some other national newspapers” on quotes for their Chicago editions. “We have interest from a couple European newspapers, and papers in Great Britain,” he said. “So, we’re finally seeing that the market is starting to become receptive to what we felt was a good, valuable service that we could provide.”

Waiting in the Wings

Quick Evolution

Digital printing technology is in a state of flux that Winscott compared to recent leaps in the cell phone industry.

“I believe it’s a technology that is going to become more and more dominant in our industry,” he said. “As technology improves the presses, it’s going to have a significant impact. It’s going to lower the cost of entry.”

The digital press manufacturers are all chasing—or have achieved—speeds as high as 1,000 linear feet per minute on their newest models.

“They’re increasing their Web widths. They’re adding different flexibilities that they didn’t have five years ago,” including variable cutoffs that make the machines more flexible for different newspaper formats, Winscott said. “I think it’s going to be just like a cell phone evolution. All of a sudden, you went from a flip phone to a smartphone, whereas (publishers) went from letterpress to flexo to offset over a period of 50 years.”

Meanwhile, figuring out how to monetize digital printing is every bit as important to achieving a tipping point as the advancements in the technology. “You’ve just got to think outside the box about how this can be marketed,” Masotta said. “It’s got some tremendous potential.”

Published: December 7, 2015

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