Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Observations: The Shipping News—Print on Demand on the High Seas

I am dedicating this column to those of you thinking ahead past the looming holidays and the closing of the books on 2006 to that all-important winter vacation somewhere sunny. While the Lyra Imaging Symposium held in late January in Rancho Mirage, CA, might be enough for some, others are thinking about something more substantial such as a tropical cruise. So for you soon-to-be-cruisers, I am offering some advice based on recent personal experience about how to stay in touch while you are at sea—with the added bonus that my advice relates directly to the printing industry!

I just returned from a long cruise across the Atlantic Ocean. While all that time at sea was extremely relaxing, I was worried that a cruise might bring about a personal crisis due to information withdrawal. “Getting away from it all” was definitely an objective of the trip, but keeping up with world, national, business, and sports news was still important to me. Thanks to the ship’s print-on-demand service, I was able to get my news fix with the assistance of NewspaperDirect, a Canadian company that emerged during the Internet boom and that has adapted, survived, and even prospered.

For a little background, let’s go back to the beginnings of the Internet revolution, when some of the more imaginative leaders in the printing and imaging business began to see that the industry was facing a classic threat/opportunity paradigm, maybe the biggest the industry would ever face. News and information that flowed physically to people, from centrally printed newspapers and magazines, would eventually be replaced by electronically distributed material that readers would print at the point of consumption. Industry pundits referred to this paradigm shift as moving from a “print-and-distribute” model to a “distribute-and-print” model. Not only was the new model much more efficient in terms of both cost and time, it was also a potential boon for manufacturers of desktop and workgroup printers, as these devices would take much of the workload (and revenue) from centralized printing plants.

In the mid-1990s, some industry leaders sought to validate this trend and learn how to facilitate the new model’s adoption by searching for some corner cases where special circumstances had caused the shift to already occur. One such early example was TimesFax, which was a version of the New York Times edited down to a concise eight-page summary (including the crossword). The TimesFax was faxed to far-flung locations around the globe, such as out-of-the-way hotels, U.S. embassies, and, of course, cruise ships. The eight-page fax was then copied and distributed to guests and employees who needed their Times for the day, even if they were in Qatar or the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. By the late 1990s, TimesFax had moved to using e-mail distribution of PDF files, and the service is now known as TimesDigest.

In 1999, NewspaperDirect was formed. The firm’s value proposition was similar to that of TimesFax, but NewspaperDirect served more in the capacity of a distributor. The firm reached agreements with multiple media companies to provide electronic versions of complete newspapers and offered hotel chains the ability to sell their guests daily printed copies of their local paper, which were printed on demand on-site at participating hotels in the wee hours of the morning. The HP LaserJet 8100 was the printer of choice for local printing.

HP and NewspaperDirect formed a partnership during my time at HP. At the time, I had doubts that the business model could produce enough volume to justify the hardware overhead and supplies hassles. The print volume for such a service was dependent on increasing demand for hard copy newspapers among the growing segment of laptop-carrying, Internet-addicted road warriors. Along with accessing e-mail and other company information, this group was getting more and more of its news via the Web, spurred on by better news sites and the increased availability of broadband connections at hotels.

This takes us to the present—NewspaperDirect’s product (or is it really a service?) was available on my cruise in late 2006. The company had made it after all, and I decided to learn more about the firm’s story.

An interview with James Woloszyn, NewspaperDirect’s director of operations, and Gayle Moss, the firm’s director of marketing, answered some of the questions I had about the company’s path from its humble beginnings to the present. Woloszyn and Moss freely admit that the firm had to shift from its initial business model of 1999. One important change involved the transition from in-hotel printing to a “semi-distribute-and-print” model in which printing occurs at a local distributor’s off-site location. Physical distribution then replaces electronic distribution over the proverbial last mile—rather from every individual hotel’s printer to each guest room. In addition, the print distributors refocused their customer list beyond road warriors and business hotels to include luxury hotels, cruise ships, and yachts.

Variety is a key part of NewspaperDirect’s value proposition, so the company has continued to expand its offerings. In the beginning, the firm had agreements with 30 newspapers. Today, NewspaperDirect has arrangements with more than 600 newspapers. For example, on my cruise, I was offered the choice of 370 newspapers from 66 countries in 38 languages. (Call me boring or pedestrian but I picked USA Today.) Perhaps most importantly, in addressing the large and growing customer segment that prefers on-screen viewing of the news, NewspaperDirect has leveraged the print-on-demand newspaper offering with a feature-rich newspaper-viewing alternative called PressDisplay.com, recognizing there are two segments of information consumers: those who prefer hard copy and those who prefer electronic display.

While I am more display-oriented, the ship’s satellite-based Internet service was costly and slow. News sites took quite a long time to download when they did display at all. So my chaise-lounge-friendly alternative was a hard copy ledger-sized USA Today—duplexed, stapled, and printed in monochrome. (The irony of getting USA Today, which pioneered the broader use of color in newspapers, in black-and-white was not lost on me.) At $3.95 a day, the hard copy was not cheap, but the additional cost was in line with the premiums one typically pays on a cruise, and the newspaper was a welcome lifeline to civilization.

So how does the cruise line provide on-demand printing? While still tied up to the dock at our embarkation point, I realized that the daily printing demands of a cruise ship are massive even on an average-sized-ship—let alone the mega-cruisers being commissioned these days. Typical printed documents include daily menus, newsletters, and advertising flyers for several thousand passengers. Adding in a few dozen newspapers does not add much to the ship’s overall printing workload, and the newspapers produce profits and satisfy guests’ needs to keep in touch with the world back home. I did not see the ship’s behind-the-scenes production facilities where NewspaperDirect papers are converted from ether to hard copy. It seems that cruise staff are well trained to keep passengers away from the ship’s “backstage.” And, after all, I did not try too hard—I was on vacation!

So, future cruisers, check with your individual cruise line before departing, but the odds are good that NewspaperDirect’s daily news fix will be awaiting you at sea. And remember how I missed getting a backstage peek at how a ship’s printing workload is produced? I think I might take another cruise soon just to check it out.

Jim welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions for future columns at jflyons@gmail.com. Past columns, links, and other musings may be found at jimlyonsobservations.blogspot.com.

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