Web’s decline has a way to go yet

Jo Francis
Monday, October 13, 2014

It’s a depressing list, and a depressingly long one. The list (below) featuring a roll-call of more than 25 web offset printers that have closed since the year 2000 includes some of the industry’s once-venerable names, and some of its once-biggest print sites.

And the sad fact is, it seems pretty likely that other names will be added to the list in the not-too-distant future. Wyndeham Group has signalled its intention to cease manufacturing at Essex-based Wyndeham Heron, and there is more to come elsewhere. 

It is possible that Heron’s workforce and union can come up with a plan to save the plant, but it looks pretty unlikely. As Wyndeham chief executive Paul Utting said when making the announcement: “We looked at it every way we could think of” prior to the decision.

Heron once employed 440, although that has dwindled to 146 over the past six years. And not too far away in Colchester, another web offset print plant that also once employed more than 400 staff has a much smaller-scale future. 

Polestar Colchester is set to be downscaled to become a contractual site, while sister site Polestar Petty in Leeds will join the defunct list, as it is earmarked for closure as part of the restructuring that will follow the start-up of Polestar’s new web offset factory in Sheffield. 

The question is, then, have we reached the end-game when it comes to the restructuring and downsizing of UK Web Offset PLC? 

The consensus may be depressing for web offset workers and suppliers to the sector.

“Have we reached the end-game? Not at all. We haven’t reached the bottom yet,” says one supplier to the industry. “I think there are going to be more sites to close yet. There will be another couple of names on that list in 2015.”

While the list of closures includes web printers of all shapes and sizes – and some that were more focused on the commercial or direct mail markets – it’s a fact that printers that served the publishing community make up the bulk of the list. 

The volumes when it comes to producing magazines and supplements for newspapers and large magazine publishers are, quite simply, huge. And the structural change in both those industries means the associated drop-off in tonnage is equally enormous. 

As well as the closures of entire titles, some notably large falls in circulation combined with lower paginations have resulted in a cumulative loss of volume. 

One of the key factors is societal change. As the recent research report commissioned by the Stationers’ Company put it, we are moving from a ‘print-first’ to a ‘digital-first’ society. 

“There are still a lot of big publishers driving their readership onto iPads,” says our industry supplier. 

The Stationers’ research reported that consumption of graphic paper in Western Europe fell 6.2% per annum between 2008 and 2010. 

And the latest consumer magazine stats from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that sales of paid-for weekly and monthly titles fell by 4.4% in the first half of 2014 – a decline that equates to some 1m magazines. Within the figures are notable double-digit declines for well-known magazines across many sectors. 

Will publication print volumes continue to decline inexorably, then, or will things stabilise at some point and reach a sort of equilibrium that could be considered ‘the new normal’. 

It’s not possible to say just yet. Magazines remain hugely popular. A minority of titles are growing their sales, and despite the travails of the sector there are plenty of start-up titles, most notably Net-a-Porter’s luxe own-brand magazine and Haymarket’s new sport title for Sports Direct, Forever Sports.

In general, though, start-ups tend to be the sort of niche titles that are printed sheetfed, or digitally. 

Among the big newsstand titles, it looks like there will be more casualties akin to glossy monthly Company, which has gone online-only after 36 years as a print product. And Time Inc UK recently announced that TV Easy was to merge with What’s On TV, removing at a stroke a circa 110,000 weekly print run. 

So, despite all that has happened over the past 14 years, one seasoned print buyer thinks the current state-of-play is “only the beginning”, and web offset printers should be braced for further upheaval – involving both publishers and printing technology. 

“Web offset will die into a small niche, even more commoditised than now if that’s possible,” he states. “Inkjet will create new opportunities for publishers.”

However, an interesting alternative viewpoint comes from a print boss observing web offset events from a different part of print altogether. Dave Broadway, the managing director at CFH Docmail, says: “It doesn’t need rationalisation, it needs strategy and new products. If the only UK strategy is to follow the market down then, yes, that part of the UK print business will only decline.” 


Web offset closures since 2000

Alderson Web

Apple Web Offset

BGP Colchester 

Blackburns

Century Web Offset

Cradley Print

Cooper Clegg

Duncan Web Offset

Global MP (formerly St Ives Bradford)

Graphoprint

Grapho Media

Journal Printing Co

New Jarrold Printing

Pillans & Waddies

Polestar Anglia

Polestar Chromoworks

Polestar East Kilbride

Polestar Watford

Polestar Watmoughs

Quebecor World Corby

St Ives Caerphilly

St Ives Gillingham

The Print Factory

The Website (Leeds)

TPL

WE Berry

Wiltshire

Wyndeham Impact

Wyndeham Plymouth

Excludes newspaper print sites. Polestar has also closed its Purnell, Greaves and Varnicoat gravure sites.

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