Cal Poly Media Study Suggests New Direction for Print Industry

By Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D.

As The Bulletin reportedin April, the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly (GrCI) recently conducted a study about how people perceive media in their lives titled “What Does Media Mean to You?”

Since this study paints a picture of the present and likely future use of media, it will be of interest to a variety of groups competing for the public's attention and it will be relevant for corporate strategic planning. In the corporate world of media—and particularly for the ailing printing industry—this study suggests new directions for the industry to adopt to reverse the tide of contraction and financial loss that has plagued the printing industry for nearly two decades.

A Broad Perspective

The study presents a broad perspective that media can be divided into two industry segments: the printing industry and those industries involved in producing and distributing non-print digital media.

The Printing Industry

The printing industry has been in a state of flux for about three decades. Once boasting approximately 55,000 commercial printing establishments at its high point in the 1970s, the industry now has fewer than 30,000 such establishments, and the number is declining. Pundits of business development strategies often attribute such a decline in any industry to poor business planning and a lack of strategic planning know-how.

This is indicative of the printing industry over the past half century, with several profound examples, including, but not limited to, a failure to foresee the replacement of linotype operating with phototypesetting (1960s); not anticipating the elimination of the need for image assemblers, commonly known as “strippers,” by integrated systems technology leaders of the time, such as Scitex, Crosfield, Hell, etc. (1970s); and not preparing for the elimination of traditional copy preparation and prepress by desktop publishing (1980s).

These examples within the printing industry did not reduce the need for print but vastly reduced the need for operators and practitioners within the field, which resulted in a tremendous reduction in the workforce.

More devastating to the industry, however, was the failure to anticipate and prepare for the replacement of print with non-print digital imaging (the Internet and World Wide Web) and, therefore, the elimination of entire printing companies. This did not have to happen. The foresight to “reinvent” the industry and the services it provides could have prevented this. However, commercial printers, accustomed to short-term planning, have had “blinders” on for decades and don’t see more than a few days ahead. They are typically unaware of competing industries emerging to capture market share that traditionally belonged to the printing industry.

Furthermore, the traditional associations in the printing industry simply have not provided their members with support services to help them survive and grow. This did not have to be the case, either. Professional associations could embrace print and non-print digital imaging, but this would involve reinventing the associations. The associations could do what they have always done, but add to it teaching and helping the printing and related companies embrace new media and develop services for them. Therefore, the results of this study will be useful to graphic communication associations as well.

Non-print Digital Imaging

Non-print digital imaging represents technologies that replicate what the printer and publisher have done, using entirely different skill sets and business structures that are outside the realm of the average commercial printer and publisher experience and knowledge base. This differs from one printing technology replacing another, such as the examples previously noted. The emergence of non-print digital imaging was a “frontal attack” on the printing and publishing industries, similar to the automobile replacing the horse and buggy or the airline industry replacing the long-distance rail system in the United States.

Ironically, the information that print provides is still necessary. There is no compelling evidence that this same information provided in a non-print form is as effective as when it is delivered in print. However, the non-print industries have effectively marketed their products to the public and business community, where they have been rapidly adopted as information delivered in a form that replaces their printed counterparts. Examples are e-books, electronic news on tablets, and smart phones, blogs, electronic advertisements and more.

Purpose and Conclusions

This study is intended to provide media users and producers with options that convey certain types of information via the most effective medium and to give service providers, such as commercial printers and publishers, information that might assist in strategic planning for expanding into new markets. The conclusions developed from the survey present a “broad stroke” of considerations that will be useful to those for whom this study is meant. Readers may be able to develop additional conclusions and inferences from the data and results from this study based on their specific interests.

Special Offer for IDEAlliance Members

The full 218-page report, which includes specific details covering the survey responses and conclusions, is now available at half price to IDEAlliance members only. To acquire a PDF or printed copies, contact GrCI Manager Lyndee Sing at 805-756-2645 or e-mail her at lsing@calpoly.eduand note that you wish to purchase the survey, whether you would prefer print or digital, and how many copies you’d like.

About the Author

Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D., is Professor Emeritus and Director of the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.