Johnson's World: The Internet, Global Warming, and the Paperless Office

The new market is here. Create your own opportunities.

March 1, 2012

Long ago and far away, shortly after Al Gore invented the Internet, my banker began asking if the world wide web was going to hurt the printing business. It was a valid question, of which I pondered the pros and cons in great detail. My ponderings did not bring me to any satisfactory conclusion, but something else did.

Ebay was an early example of a successful e-commerce company and one of the few “e-tailers” from that era to survive into the present day.

One day I was asked to prepare an estimate for a “hush-hush” project. You guessed it, it was the first ever mailer for Ebay. This quintessential online-only company had discovered that print was the ideal way to expand its customer base. Since that time, direct mail advertising for Internet companies has become ubiquitous.

Welcome Perspective

This incident helped me to realize that the Internet and e-commerce weren’t going to replace print. They were going to displace some particular types of print and some longstanding projects, but print itself was not going away. I could confidently assure my banker that the paperless society was no more imminent than the paperless bathroom.

Fast forward to the new millennium. Al Gore has gone on to invent global warming. Ebay is still online, as are Amazon and Google. Others like AOL, AltaVista, and are fading away or gone completely. Of course, many thousands of printing companies are also gone, including Quebecor; once the second largest printer in the world.

If you are reading this, you are probably still in business. You are probably also worried about the future, or at least somewhat uneasy.

Despite the pronouncements of government bureaucrats, the American economy is in bad shape. Most business segments are still struggling. If you are like me, you find no comfort at all in watching competitors fail.

Print remains challenged by newer forms of media and some segments are more challenged than others.

A Different Kind of Web-to-Print

I don’t go to the doctor very often. I find the medical profession’s habit of scheduling appointments for which they expect us to arrive on time, only to be kept waiting in their “waiting rooms” to be most annoying. During one such recent sojourn to the doctor’s office I found among the People magazines an issue of WebMD. That’s right, another example of a website that has morphed into a print publication. Apparently, the print version was inaugurated in 2005. I guess I’m a bit tardy for my annual physical.

The magazine is well done, with no expense spared for design. This is not just a website “repurposed” for print. In a time when magazines are under intense pressure, WebMD is an example of a successful new publication. This is significant, for this printing didn’t exist before the age of the Internet.

A recent telephone survey by Poll Position of 1,142 Americans reveals that 56 percent don’t think the US will ever be a paperless society, while only 20 percent thought paperless would really happen. The rest were undecided. This indicates a strong belief in paper.

WebMD magazine makes the case for intelligent optimism. Don’t just sit back and watch as your shop’s traditional print markets and printed products shrivel up and die. Get out there and find new markets! Find new products! Create them yourself, if possible.

Is the glass half empty or half full? A pessimist would call WebMD a fluke, one magazine success in the midst of many failures. An optimist would quickly point out that medicine and healthcare represent one of today’s strongest print markets.

Draw your own conclusion, but don’t take too long. Remember, while the optimist and the pessimist were arguing about whether the glass was half full or half empty, the opportunist came along and drank all the water!

Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL, a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at [email protected].