The demise of paper

Back in the early 80s when I was a youngish journalist in a government department, computers were just beginning to make their appearance in the office. The typing pool had been hanging on grimly to monopolise the new-fangled word processors with their floppy discs the size of long-playing records – and they really did flop – but theirs was always going to be a losing battle. The writing was on the wall. Desktop Apple computers and terminals for the glacially slow Prime mainframe started to turn up.

We were quick to seize on the limited opportunities they offered – creating our own clunky databases for example. Our system of mailed press releases was replaced with a revolutionary (for the time) system where we pumped them out via a desktop computer linked to a dedicated teleprinter network. It was also extremely expensive to set up. Our press releases clattered out happily on teleprinters in newspapers and magazines around New Zealand and for several years in the early 198os it was a wildly successful system. But it was in a technological blind alley and left behind with the arrival of faxes and then the internet and email.

If anything, productivity was probably not much better than before computers for the next decade or so. It was only when costs started to drop (our first Apple 2E at MAF cost about $14,000 in today’s money), computing speed and storage capacity improved, and of course the internet arrived, that we saw much efficiency. We had been keen to exploit whatever these new machines could do and our initial expectations were often way beyond their capacity. Nonetheless it was amazing what we could do with the eye-wateringly expensive IBM golfball typesetting machine with its 2000 character memory. It didn’t take us long to figure out – with the help of some programmers – how to code our text and send it straight for typesetting on tape or disc, thereby heralding the demise of the compositor, a trade with a long and distinguished history.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that computers would eventually make us all so productive that we’d be soon working four-day weeks and wondering what the hell to do with all our leisure time. Another expectation was that we would soon see the “paperless office”. The first prediction was laughably off target and the second has taken decades to start being realised.

It’s only now with the arrival of large-capacity, cloud-based storage and high-speed connections that it’s become safe and reliable to do away with paper records. That hit home to me a year or so ago when I shifted offices after more than 15 years in a rambling and spacious penthouse. I tossed trailer-loads of paper records, old print samples and the like – truth be told I hadn’t accessed them for years. I haven’t missed them a bit.

The demise of offset print  was widely predicted from the mid 1990s as the internet began to spread its tentacles and digital print arrived, but again it’s taken a few years to bite. It’s starting to happen now, though, and we’re seeing some painful contraction happening in the print industry. Those who are nimble enough to reduce costs and capture the diminishing amount of print work are surviving, but many smaller and mid-size printers have gone. We are also seeing some large-scale casualties with over-geared companies that have expanded too fast and been overly aggressive with their price cutting. The GFC hasn’t helped, but shrinkage in the print industry was always going to happen sooner or later. It’s hard to know if and when the industry will stabilise, but it’s not a good time to have money invested in the print business.

My worry is that we could reach at tipping point where large, multi-service print businesses can no longer survive. As print buyers we’ll lose choice and the benefits of economy of scale that these companies now offer and that would be a shame. My morning paper is gradually getting thinner, I get as much of my news via my iPad these days as I do reading the paper, and I read most books that on the tablet too. Right now we’re spoiled for choice about how and when we access information, but the extinction of cheap paper-based communication could pose real challenges. The question is – should we be subsidising the print industry and accept higher (or at least flat) costs to ensure it doesn’t collapse entirely?


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