Communication and Planning Are Best Ways to Weather Print’s ‘Perfect Storm’

With any good relationship, communication plays a huge role, and a publisher and their printer is no different. In last month’s AM&P Network Lunch & Learn—Printageddon: How to Keep Your Print Business Profitable in 2022—six experts on all sides of the print and postal fence weighed in on the state of their industry.

“We have a cycle that allows us to have some flexibility in terms of delivery dates, so because we’re seeing the postage service being a little bit slower than in the past, we have been able to say to the printer, ‘when can you fit us in the press?’ and they have been able to accommodate some of our requests,” said Bibiana Campos-Seijo, editor in chief of Chemical & Engineering News and VP of the C&EN Media Group for the American Chemical Society, “I like [having] a conversation or dialogue there… We’re lucky that we have this long-standing relationship with them.”

The occasion was one of the most engaging AM&P Network Lunch & Learns to date, as the panelists painted a real-life picture of pandemic-related issues, urging publishers to plan ahead and talk to their printers to find the best middle ground.

“The attitude that we have taken is that there are some costs that we will have to absorb,” Campos-Seijo said. “We need to offer flexibility to the printer as well, so that they can get things done, specifically with paper… We are not doing 2- and 3-week turnaround projects anymore; now it’s 2 and 3 months so that they know what’s coming up and can secure the resources.”

“Just goes to show that good communication is always helpful to whatever situation you’re in,” said Mark Sterne, president of Print and Marketing Solutions Group, who did a great job moderating the session.

Here are more takeaways from the subjects discussed:

Weathering a perfect storm. Learn from this year. “[Our situation is] pretty comparable with what Bibi was just talking about; the news from our printer all year long has not been good,” said Bridget Murray Law, editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader, the magazine of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “…We appreciate that they’ve been so transparent about it, and they are doing their best to communicate with us and keeping the lines open. But we’ve seen multiple postage hikes this year. And then, of course, freight and then at the same time print advertising is declining. So it’s kind of like a perfect storm, to use the hackneyed expression, but that’s what it is.”

No matter how big a role print has played for ASHA, Murray Law knows that she has to look at the bigger picture.

”We’re trying to really assess the value of print for our members, so I’m just taking a step back and saying, ‘What is it that our members are really getting out of print and how do we maximize that?’ So we’re really trying to do almost like an existential exercise around what the benefits of print are… The challenge is that there aren’t metrics on print, so it’s difficult to measure engagement. That’s also part of the reason why we’re seeing advertisers leaving print because they can’t measure the success of their ads.”

Murray Law said they’re trying to take learnings from their member surveys, e-newsletter and online channels to determine what drives engagement among members and apply that learning to print.

B2B? You might have to take some different paths. It was also good to get the view of a B2B media company. Curt Pordes, VP of production operations for Endeavor Business Media, said that regardless of your specs, size and paper, every title has been impacted. Endeavor has a diversity of products—mainly from a number of small and not-so-small acquisitions over the past few years—that required business integration aspects and trim-size standardization to become manageable. He’s now seeing the same challenges as far as pricing (with no near-term ceiling), allocation and purchasing (they buy their own paper).

“We’ve produced additional supplements and inserts for our ancillary products that go with our publications that we very well may not have been able to produce had we not had our own paper on the floor,” Pordes said. “And we’ve had some very real-life situations on that just within the last couple of weeks… One of the challenges right now is that our hands are kind of tied on making any changes because of that allocation, so it’s not very easy to start flipping paper stocks around.”

Expect more shortages with paper and labor. Martin Sullivan, director of procurement for the CJK Group (parent company to Sheridan and KnowledgeWorks Global, Ltd.), has a lot of experience and calls it a “really unprecedented time. Most of you are probably well aware of paper shortages, but you may not know we’ve been dealing with a glue allocation [issue and other shortages] since April/May of this year,” he said. “The vast majority of mills are now on a strict allocation. I can only think of one that isn’t, and they’re actually sold out until about May of next year.”

He went on to speak about how allocations work, finishing by saying that today’s unpredictability “has made it almost impossible to project and give advice on what to expect until a mill actually issues you that month’s allocation. And every mill has started with a different set of rules and procedures… I was actually in a webinar where one industry expert stated that 10 years of decline was experienced in 10 months of 2020, and for the first time in history, it puts the mills ahead of the curve and the rest of us struggling to find the supply.”

Brian Grimes, logistics mail manager for Sheridan Ohio, brought up another current problem. “There is a definite labor shortage,” he said. “Most printers that I’ve talked to, if not all, are in hiring mode right now, so we have some equipment that is not running due to strictly a lack of labor, and some shipments that are not ready. We’re seeing probably somewhere between a four-to-one difference from last year in the [resumes we get], so it’s pretty tight all around.”

Sullivan said that all the mills have announced another paper increase effective December. “I’ve seen a lot of industry stuff on this, and they’re saying it’s going to level off the middle of the year. If you budgeted in the 6-10% range per quarter on paper, you’re probably going to be somewhere closer to the mark.”

Be flexible. Grimes advised to be flexible with your paper options. “And remember, to work with your printer. If you’re doing a standard mail piece if it’s under four ounces, your post [may not] be affected at all by the change. So keep in mind what you’re mailing and if a paper change is something that you could negotiate with your printer, they may have something in stock that fits you perfectly well and won’t affect you as much as you might think it will.

“Then design your mail piece to flow through the USPS as best as possible… There’s a lot of different stuff you can do to decrease your postage overall if you’re willing to add a little to your time frames. There are options out there to help.” Again, communication with your printer is vital.

For associations, decide what concessions make sense for you. As far as other active measures to combat the print problems brought on by the pandemic, Campos-Seijo said that they’ve had to stop the variability of page lengths for their books, limiting them to 40-48 pages. “In a way, that allows us to have an easier time with the printer in that they don’t have to bring in more paper. We have really been faithful to that…

“One of the other things that we have been doing over the last few years is consolidating services. So within my association, there are other publications that we still print, and we now consolidate them within the same organization. And also things like color correction which we were getting done elsewhere, we’re doing them with the same company so they are doing more for us, which again, gives us some leverage in terms of negotiations and prices.

“If you have a good provider, stick with them,” she urges, “because there’s a lot of uncertainty within the business at the moment, and it could really hurt you to move to another printer at the time when we have these shortages, staff as well. In terms of how we are negotiating the existing contract, we are seeing increases in inks and polybag and those kinds of things, and our printer is absorbing a lot of those.”

Campos-Seijo also said that if conditions continue they might have to consider moving their weekly publication to a monthly. “That wouldn’t happen quickly, but that’s something that the current situation [dictates]. Certainly 2022 is going to be pretty critical in terms of if that shift has to happen. We’re also planning a lot further in advance because when it comes to things like supplements and cover wraps, we need to make sure that the printer is on board, so again 2-3 weeks become 2-3 months.”

Murray Law agreed that more steps will need to be considered in 2022, and that ASHA has also made some concessions. “We’ve already switched to the least expensive stock, and we already co-mail,” she said. They expect their circulation of 218,000 to go up, but “when your circulation is going up, your costs go up, and you can’t scale back the number of issues you send out because it’s the member benefit. What we have done in the immediate term is to reduce our pages from 72 to 64—we come out 10 times a year.

For publishers, don’t underestimate the increased staff roles, especially editorial. “We have a podcast that we put out and an online version of our magazine which publishes almost every day. So it’s really added to our workload,” Murray Law said. “That’s a point that needs to be made here from an editorial side as well because content is expensive, and people underestimate that sometimes… We may have to reduce the issue frequency. And we’re looking at a project that really is going to be about re-envisioning our print member benefits. There’s room for really reimagining the way that we think about print here, and this could be sort of like a silver lining of all this. Do we really need to package content by date anymore? What about curating it based on topic, and then packaging that for members?”

Print still has a place in B2B. Pordes knows that print—and the advertising that comes with it—still works for Endeavor. “Many of our publications have been around for a long time, and they’ve had their origins from print,” said Pordes. “Print media is still an important part of our total brand deliverable into the marketplace. Our company still feels like print is going to be around for a while. Obviously with a large portfolio, you have some properties that have a more favorable contribution from their print product, but again it’s the total presentation of the brand in print and online.”

Think revenue, costs and flexibility. Sterne reminded folks to always keep in mind the revenue side before you make a cost-side decision. As you’ve heard, he said, it’s important to do more pre-planning with publishing teams and printers than in the past. For many of the challenges that were touched on, communication is key, and just checking with your printer first on paper and other issues.

Lastly, Sullivan talked about the importance of being flexible. “There are some very good options out there, and going into next year [flexibility will be key]. If you’re prepared to switch grades or maybe a mat instead of a gloss, uncoated instead of coated. I can only speak for us, but we have lots of paper sitting on the floor that we we’re trying to use up, and if there’s a bit of flexibility there, we can certainly accommodate some of those extra items with that.

To access the members-only session, click here and use the password R=7pBgKF

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