Death rattle for the printing industry?

When I was with Apple in the late 90’s, the prepress space was one that the company dominated (something like 87% of all color publishing was/is done on Mac’s). One of the largest companies in the prepress space was Banta Corporation in Wisconsin.

On a tour of their plant in Eden Prairie, MN in 1998, I was stunned to see 80 people in the bullpen working on Mac’s performing prepress tasks. I inquired, “Gee…won’t the ability for companies to collapse everything into PDF (which had just taken off in prepress) obviate much of what these people do?” She replied with an “absolutely yes” and within a year many of them were gone.

I had an incredible knowing even then that the Web was going to continue to accelerate and eventually make much of what ended up as ink on paper be digitally delivered instead. Of course, gigantic, industry shifting changes take many, many years to unfold and I — like many of us — tend to ignore basic and fundamental shifts that take place over a long period of time.

A piece of evidence came across my desk just now that confirms my knowing back then: Banta is closing their Eden Prairie plant altogether as well as five other plants and lay off 500 workers. They’re apparently “in play” as well since a suitor has appeared to buy them.

I’m a bit disconnected from Apple and the importance of what was (printing and publishing) one of the cores and mainstays of their business. Perhaps the embrace of video and audio tools; even lame attempts at Web publishing (with iWeb); and the apparent teaming with Google (with Eric Schmidt now on their board) are all the moves Apple is making to replace and extend this printing and publishing paradigm to the internet.

Or maybe this is just a natural evolution of the printing/publishing tools, PDF and the skills gained over two decades of being in this space. I know that we produce many color publications in our business and do nearly 100% of all prepress activities as a natural course of our preparation for publishing.

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  1. Mike Korner on October 8, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Reminds me of some wise words I heard once . . . “Innovation and technology are like a steamroller — if you aren’t the one driving, you get run over.”

    Sadly, not everyone can drive. Worse, lots of people don’t even see the steamroller coming. Long term, I worry about all of us. We can create all the cool products and services we want, but at the rate things are going, who (in the United States) will have the money to pay (if we all get steamrolled)?

    Guy Kawasaki makes my point perhaps more eloquently here: “India has its own version of At two intersections, kids came up to the car to sell us paperback versions of current business books. We bought a copy of The World Is Flat for $3. Not sure if I should be happy or depressed, but The Art of the Start was not available.”
    Note – this is an excerpt from

  2. Steve Borsch on October 8, 2006 at 11:08 am

    Hallelujiah Mike.

    I read Guy’s missive. There are so many big questions about future competitiveness in the world.

    Makes me think about the once dominant empire, Britian, when “Brittania ruled the waves” and their colonialism made them the most extensive empire in world history and for a substantial time was not only a major power but also the foremost power in the world. Geopolitics, war and economic necessities forced its decline.

    Where are we now? Is our middle eastern moves with “war” in Iraq and against “Islamist fundamentalism” (vs. Muslims as a whole) somehow supposed to position us for some sort of domination?

    While talking about the Rise and Fall of the American Empire (a book hopefully never written), an economist friend of mine once said, “Value shifts to those who produce stuff. Those focused on getting value-out-of-value eventually run out of ways to sustain the latter.” What he means is a focus on financial returns or “easy money” vs. creating goods and producing services the world needs inevitably declines.

    Education, a focus on creativity and innovation, and an acceleration in both is the only way to be a player in a connected, global world.

  3. anonymous on April 8, 2007 at 6:55 am

    At one time I was a trained digital prepress operator and technician at a large printing company located in the Twin Cities. I spent every day, all day, on a PowerMac working in Quark, Photoshop, etc. I worked there until about fall of 2000. When I left there PDF was the big thing and we were taking PDF files, proofing them, imposing them for press, and making digital plates. I’ve been out of the business for about seven years now, and now I’m not sorry that I left it. Sounds like there’s not much to go back to anymore. I live in Arizona now, and there doesn’t seem to be a very big demand for prepress workers here – I’ve checked. Maybe it’s an overall thing and not just Phoenix AZ.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.