Tyranny of distance is a fact of Australian life – but for newspaper publishers, it poses a unique challenge.
Trucking newspapers from city to country is slow. Flying is expensive. Both are laborious and leave a sizeable environmental footprint. And in regional areas facing advertising decline, publishers are constantly looking to engage more closely with their readers.
The solution may finally be on Australia’s doorstep. Digital printing – once a futuristic idea given little serious spotlight in the print conversation – is now under serious consideration by newspaper publishers, with News Corp Australia putting out a tender for a supplier, Fairfax and APN watching closely and talk of collaboration in the air.
Both publishers and suppliers broadly agree that while digital printing may not take over from offset in metropolitan areas, it will be a vital component, particularly in the future of regional distribution.
According to News Corp’s national production and logistics director Geoff Booth, it’s a big investment, but the time has come to make it.
“We know very little about this technology,” he says. “What it does and how it works – and from my perspective, we’ve got to get in and learn.” The only way to do that, he says, is to experiment on equipment of their own, a belief which has led to plans to establish a digital print centre at the company’s Brisbane print site.
“What we’ve looked at, at the moment, is how we can build a business case out of this,” Mr Booth says.
“We’ve put a tender document into the market to supply us with a print engine… to be able to produce the copies of the Herald Sun and the Sunday Herald Sun that we currently fly in to south east Queensland from Melbourne every day.
“That’s about 3000 copies and that costs us quite a bit of money. We’re trying to build a business case based on saving that air freight in Brisbane. Fairfax has been keeping a close watch on digital printing.”
“For the last five years, we’ve been looking at it year on year to watch its progress,” says Fairfax Media’s group director of printing and distribution, Bob Lockley. “And over those five years, it’s gotten faster and it’s becoming more cost effective, per copy, for a newspaper. They’ve certainly developed a long way and the quality has developed a lot too.
“Today we’ve got a good quality product,” he says.
Mr Booth stresses there is no partnership – but he is keeping Fairfax and APN up to speed with News’ experiments.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with both Fairfax and APN just to let them know what we’re doing in this space, because I think it’s an area we don’t compete in,” he says, “and the more that we can share this information between us and learn about it, the better off our industry is.”
Fairfax is putting off taking the step of selecting a trial site – although Mr Lockley says there are some where the company would like – until it sees more evidence.
“We’re looking at some of the smaller regional areas of Australia where we might be able to put it into print products – like Far North Queensland, the top of WA, some parts of South Australia. Some of those parts that are not so easy to get to.”
However, it’s not just the distribution efficiency that appeals. Unlike conventional offset printing, using heavy plates that are somewhat unchangeable, digital printing produces a product that is “100 per cent variable,” Mr Lockley says, “so you can have personalised, variable data on each copy.
“Personalising it with names, competitions, the latest local sports results – you can change it at the last second, instead of having to make plates and stop presses and restart and all of that business.”
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Canon Australia’s national manager – digital webpress technology, Colin McKenzie, says there has been significant interest from Australian publishers. He accompanied senior members of News Corp Australia overseas last year looking at successful digital printing sites, including Axel Springer in Berlin.
He believes the large publishers have progressed beyond the learning stages. “They certainly are down the investigation trail,” he says. “I think the learning has been done and the acknowledgement is that yes, the technology is now viable and it’s a matter of the investigation to what their internal business case would be and how they could deliver on the implementation of a digital printing site.
“We’ve spent the last five years with the newspaper publishing industry in Australia going through all of those aspects around the technology and the business case, and my guess would be that we’ll see announcements come out of this industry before the year is out.”
Mr McKenzie believes regional areas, in particular, present opportunities for Australian publishers to tackle “the biggest challenge we have in the newspaper publishing industry today” – readership and advertising decline. The digital print model, he says, would allow a more intimate engagement with the reader by delivering more personalised advertising.
“For instance,” he says, taking the perspective of a publisher, “if I’m sending the Herald Sun from Melbourne to a regional site, I don’t need to have the Melbourne weather map. I can replace it with the local weather map.”
The same applies to advertising, Mr McKenzie says. “Digital printing makes it possible to deliver advertising that is relevant to the reader.
“We didn’t have all of those options five years ago. It became more of a manual process at the back end. It’s all now fully automated through the production line to be able to deliver all of those products we would see coming off the newspaper presses.”
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Regional director for Hewlett Packard, Steve Donegal, has been with the digital printing industry for more than 20 years and has seen attitudes change among publishers.
“I went from listening to printers saying that digital was merely a fad and a toy to it being one of the more dominant, added-value revenue generators for the conventional printing industry,” he says.
Logistical benefits are clear, Mr Donegal says. Rather than centring production on one facility, he explains, publishers can create a network of digital printing devices capable of reading data locally or centrally, and deliver to the readership with greater convenience and lower costs.
“You’re either looking for added value or reducing cost; adding efficiencies, reducing waste; and generally being able to put to readership on a more personal level,” he says.
“Digital enables so many more opportunities to get a response, a call to action, that I think it will only gather pace, and specifically for newspapers, which primarily are very static documents – they can become much more dynamic, valuable and relevant, beyond just the news that’s printed on them today.”
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Managing director of Dainippon Screen Australia, Peter Scott, says Australia is starting to catch on. “We’ve been talking to the newspaper industry about the advantages of digital printing for years now,” he says, “and I think they’re finally realised that it is the way to go.”
The days of printing large volumes of newspapers and putting them onto trucks and planes, the print-and-distribute model, are numbered – and certainly less viable, he says.
“The distribute-and-print model, which digital printing technology affords, is the way to go. Sending PDF files via the internet and then printing them in the location closest to their end use makes a lot more sense.”
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Kodak’s regional general manager of digital printing, Asia Pacific, Adrian Fleming, works with Australian publishers who need to get publications to rural areas “pretty much within a couple of hours of being printed – and that either costs a fortune or is completely impractical,” he says. “So that can be a real challenge in offset land.”
Digital goes a long way towards addressing those issues by enabling work to be distributed and printed, rather than printed and distributed, he explains.
“We definitely see offset still being a major part of publishing for a long time, but as run lengths and demands and different approaches to advertising come into play, then the relevance and penetration of digital gets stronger and stronger,” he said.