Newspaper bosses should look into a different kind of digital future

Jo Francis considers the potential future opportunity in a market that's subject to massive decline.

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about the future of printed newspapers, and whether – no laughing at the back – there could be a potential opportunity for commercial printers in that future.

Newspaper circulations are, overwhelmingly, only going one way, and that’s down. Bigly.

At what point, then, does the tipping point occur and it’s no longer economically viable to print daily newspapers at those great big newspaper production plants that still exist, but have diminished in numbers in recent years?

Surely that point will come in the not-too-distant future? Maybe some national newspaper titles will become print products at the weekend only. Or maybe a midweek issue and then Saturday and Sunday issues. 

In light of these musings I was super-interested to read David Montgomery’s comments about a ‘digital only’ future for National World’s print titles – the implication being that National World plans to switch to some sort of digital print-on-demand model for its papers – of which it has many including regional dailies and a host of community media.

So here’s the thing. Digital printing for newspapers is not new, we’ve been writing about it for years. 

Stroma has been actually doing it for years, as has KP Services on Jersey. But it’s been a niche. 

To my mind the quality and reliability of today’s inkjet web presses, combined with clever inline finishing like Manroland Goss Web Systems’ "multivariable" FoldLine folder that can dynamically handle tabloid, broadsheet and other formats, mean that satellite digital production hubs printing national and regional newspapers should surely be something on the agenda of all newspaper publishers. 

Like book publishers and the shift to print-on-demand, news groups need to get their heads around a completely different operating model, but the potential benefits could be huge – including a reduced environmental footprint due to shorter distribution distances, and the ability to print exactly the quantity required, and indeed rapidly reprint and update if more copies are needed. 

It would likely require some sort of co-investment model from the news groups, and, wait for it, printers in the right regional locations could easily house this sort of dynamic digital printing setup. 

For example a printer in East Anglia could happily be producing all the national and regional newspapers for that region, along with weekend supplement production during the day. 

It feels like we’re at the point where the printing and finishing technology is robust enough to make this viable. 

Now we just await that tipping point. And more details about what National World is planning for this space.