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New Print Campaign Is Fatally Flawed -- McIlroy

April 2002
GENTLE READER: I can only say that if you're getting sick and tired of my naysaying of the printing industry, think about how I feel. I look back on my Printing Impressions columns over the last few years, and I realize that you could easily get the idea that there's nothing I'd like better than to see the printing industry disappear. I keep harping about the industry's failure to get with the program: to recognize the changes that are taking place in the way that media is proffered in our society.

I keep harping about the economic challenges that the printing industry faces and, I know, I do it in a way that suggests I hold out little hope.

I've been putting off writing this column for a couple of weeks now, and not for the usual reasons of laziness and distraction. I've been putting it off because I've got another harangue in the works here that I know a lot of people are going to read as excessively negative.

How can I prove it to you? I love print. I was raised on it. My father was a published author. The first job I remember him holding was as a PR rep for Encyclopedia Britannica. I remember vividly the day when his second novel was published, and his 10 author's copies showed up at our home. The excitement we shared was all about print.

I started in the ink-on-paper business as a bookseller. I worked for a decade as a book publisher. I've authored or co-authored more than a dozen books—all of them issued with ink on paper. I've been consulting to printers and the graphic arts industry for 15 years.

But, let me state it bluntly: I feel embarrassed shame at the PIA/GATF's new campaign: "Print: The Original Information Technology." I'll avoid rhetoric and explain my reasons carefully.

First, please turn your Web browsers to this address: http://www.gain.org/servlet/gateway/printIT/speech.html and read carefully the remarks from Ray Roper, PIA president and CEO, introducing the new campaign.

I can't claim to be a close friend of Ray Roper's, but we've met on more than one occasion, and I can state unequivocally that I have the greatest respect for his intelligence and commitment to the printing industry. During his tenure at PIA, he's worked hard for all of us. What follows is not an attack on Roper or his colleagues. Rather, it's a disagreement about strategy.

I have no quarrel with the stated aim of this promotional campaign, a "long-term national campaign to properly position print media in the minds of all Americans." That's a great idea—one that we've struggled with for a long time.

I do agree with Roper when he says that the campaign "can't be done like the milk producers have done with the 'got milk' campaign; or the egg producers have done with the 'incredible edible egg' campaign."

But my agreement falters as to why.

In his remarks, Roper pointed out: "Why can't it be done this way? Because these campaigns are funded by marketing orders authorized by the federal government, which add a percent or two to the cost of these products, usually at the wholesale level."

Sure, that's why we can't expect to embark on campaigns of the same scale and expense as the milk and egg marketing campaigns. But, far more importantly, the reason to avoid emulating these campaigns is that we can't appeal to consumers in the same way. It's preposterous to think that we can reach out to the public and create more consumer demand for printing as an abstract commodity.

Does anyone think that a popup banner on the New York Times Website with the slogan "Print: The Original Information Technology" is going to encourage people to put down their mice and head out to the newsstand?

But this isn't the key issue to reject this promotional program. Here's the problem: ". . . the objective of this campaign is . . . the positioning of print as part of the information technology or IT-sector of the U.S. economy."

Print as information technology? Wrong. Print is not an information technology. That's not print's key strength. Print is presentation. Print is portability. Print is convenience. Print is tactile. Print is beautiful. Print is not an information technology. It's a centuries-old craft that presents ideas and images in a manner designed to aid the reader to absorb the artifacts of our culture.

The Internet is information technology. Everyone knows that if you want to get the most up-to-the-moment in-depth information, go online, not to the newsstand.

I'm not sure that I need to quote an authoritative source here but, just in case, I went to the Website of the Information Technology Association of America.

Here's its explanation of IT: "Information Technology is one of America's fastest growing industries, encompassing computers, software, telecommunications products and services, Internet and online services, systems integration and professional services companies." No mention of print. I wasn't surprised.

Do we really think that if we repeat "Print: The Original Information Technology" often enough, the public will see it as equivalent to the Web?

I don't believe it for a minute.

But that doesn't mean printing isn't sexy. There are so many wonderful things about print, so many things we can remind the public of, without trying to be IT-cool.

Roper acknowledges print's strengths in his remarks: "Ink on paper has consistently proven to be the most reliable medium to convey images and ideas." Exactly! Print shines in so many areas. A newspaper on a lazy Sunday morning. A page-turner on a sunny beach. A colorful magazine on a long flight. An art book. A beautifully printed poster.

Let's remind people in a positive way of the many things that print does better than any other medium. IT just isn't one of them.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing consultant and analyst, based at Arcadia House in San Francisco. He welcomes your comments at thad@arcadiahouse.com.
 

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