Newspapers Break For A Commercial At Graph Expo Equipment Show

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Every fall, I treat myself to a kind of busman’s holiday by dropping in on the Graph Expo or Print equipment show when it sets up shop in McCormick Center.

Because Graph Expo, which closed Wednesday, is a show for commercial printers, I can attend without feeling any pressure to suss out the Next Big Thing in technology. Graph Expo is also a kind of throwback show where printers wallpaper their booths with posters of Cameron Diaz falling out of her bikini to show off the company’s skill at mixing CYM.

And it’s chock full of swag that I can pocket without feeling I’ve violated Article II, Section 3 (a) of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. Tuesday, I got a cool backpack in a drawing after a product demonstration. (Thanks, Lasermax Roll Systems! Nobody makes better in-line finishing and binding systems for on-demand printers than you guys!)

Also, after the increasingly anemic Nexpos, it’s nice to go to an equipment show that’s actually crowded. Graph Expo says it attracts about 40,000 attendees. Every single one of them seemed to show up Tuesday.

Among those 40,000 were some newspaper production people searching the show for commercial products that can make or save them some money, vendors said.

“We’ve had people come by from The New York Times, the Times regional group, Gannett, Advance Publications, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” Peter Wilkens said at Agfa’s sprawling booth.

Wilkens is the director of Agfa’s newspaper segment, and was one of several newspaper-oriented executives from equipment and systems vendors who made it a point to man their booths at this commercial show.

They made another point in conversations on the show floor Tuesday: newspaper and commercial printing is beginning to look more alike. On the commercial side, job runs have become much smaller than they once were, and the need to quickly set up for the next job becomes critical. That sounds an awful lot like the newspaper production these days as papers try to meet the demand for ever-smaller zoning.

At Graph Expo, the four big buzz-worthy themes could have been heard at this year’s Nexpo as well: workflow, automation, high-speed ink jet, and digital printing. (Okay, maybe not digital printing. For newspapers, digital printing as a reality is reminiscent of the 1980s when year after year, “true” pagination was always said to be five years away — except that digital will probably be 10 years away for the next several years.)

Newspapers want to get to the level of automation that some big commercial printers are achieving, Agfa’s Wilkens said. There’s one “big, big” newspaper that is looking to quickly replace its 12 to 15 employees in the plateroom with a system that needs just three, he said.

“We’re hearing the words ‘lights out’ in the plateroom all the time,” said Sheila Nysko, a business development executive in Agfa’s North American Newspaper Systems.

And workflow solutions designed for the rapid-fire run of jobs on the commercial side translate well into newspaper.

Ink jet, too, is attracting newspaper attention these days — and not just as a way to code bundles going out the shipping dock.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest among newspapers in going into direct mail,” said Patrick DeRose, director of North American newspaper sales for Creo Americas, the Kodak subsidiary. It makes sense, he added. Newspapers already have the audience database, and experience with variable printing.

There’s been so much attention paid, in fact, that Kodak is thinking of showing its Versamark VT3000 — an unmistakably commercial-oriented printing system — at next year’s Nexpo, DeRose said.

Newspapers and commercial face a common transition in print, argued James M. Luttrell, ECRM’s director of marketing.

“The trend in commercial is to digital and personalization,” he said. “I’ve always believed, and this is just my personal opinion, that newspapers, with their subscriber lists, have a burlap bag full of gold, and they should take advantage of that, and the great brand that they’ve built in the community. There’s no reason newspapers should be outside that (personalized marketing) game. They should be the leaders of that game.”

There are, of course, still big differences between commercial and newspaper printing. A newspaper visitor to Graph Expo’s “Wide Format Pavilion,” for instance, won’t come away with any more useful technology transfer than wondering just how Cameron Diaz managed that whole falling-out-of-her-bikini pose.

“There are obviously different needs,” Barry Evans, another old newspaper hand, said at the large Goss International Corporation booth. “Commercial has a huge variety of products, and the packaging and distribution is often totally different.”

Even so, Evans’ very presence at Goss illustrates the ways products developed for one side can be useful to the other. Evans is executive vice president of Ferag, which has an exclusive North American marketing agreement with Goss. On the Graph Expo show floor was a Goss commercial press fitted with Ferag postpress equipment originally designed for newspapers.

At a jumping show like Graph Expo — where just about every vendors bring working equipment, to the point that McCormick Center smells like a particularly poorly maintained back shop of a Sir Speedy store — it’s easy to think that the commercial side is somehow ahead of newspaper printing. And that’s surely true in some ways. Commercial-side acceptance of JDF (job definition format) is clearly miles ahead of the newspaper industry’s.

And yet there are moments like the time I tarried to listen to the demonstration of Heidelberg’s Speedmaster SM 52-4 press. “You don’t have to worry about adjusting inking keys,” the demonstrator said. “Yes, it’s true! There are no inking keys anymore!”

What’ll they think of next?

Before I left Graph Expo Tuesday, I had one more question for the newspaper-side vendors. Now, the conversation with this person wasn’t off the record, but I think it’s better to keep it as an anonymous quote anyway. Who, I wanted to know, are the bigger whiners — newspapers or commercial printers?

“No question — newspapers,” the vendor responded. “A commercial guy, you can deal [with] that [as] an [ordinary] complaint from a customer. But newspapers, they can really work you over. They’re big. They’ve got to the lawyers, the lobbyist, the press. Yeah, it’s the newspapers.”

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