Commentary & Analysis
Part One: Freedom of the Press in the Printing Industry: The Eagle's Odyssey
THE EAGLE is a supplier of information to an industry that is itself an integral part of information and communication technology.
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: January 15, 2003
THE EAGLE is a supplier of information to an industry that is itself an integral part of information and communication technology. Printing facilitates freedom of the press. Printing is an information medium. In the open marketplace, print products are ultimately worth - not what it costs to manufacture them - but the value of the information that is imbedded within them.
But how does the printing industry generate, manage and process information about itself? How free is information inside the printing industry. We are speaking here not of information on printing markets, imaging technologies or economic trends, but about how business is conducted within this industry. We are referring to industry business relationships, practices, and business models, the transparency and integrity of transactions and the industry's underlying beliefs and assumptions. These factors, which are the focus of THE EAGLE's editorial content, enable an industry to meet the challenges of changing markets, new technologies and economic fluctuations.
Self-analysis is as difficult for industries as it is for individuals. In both cases, the process depends on the willingness and ability to hear valid critiques and observations. An industry's "information culture" (and every industry has one) filters and shapes the information made available to industry players. The information that is finally allowed and accepted ultimately determines policy-making and business practices.
As a recollection of THE EAGLE's odyssey from dealer newsletter to today's department of WhatTheyThink.com, this essay is a commentary on the printing industry's "information culture," and how the industry - manufacturers, dealers, printers, consultants and trade publishers - treats critical information about itself.
Censorship and Shrimp Cocktail
Our experience with the graphic arts industry's information culture came with the rude discovery, more than 20 years ago, that advertising-based trade magazines are under direct and constant pressure to exclude news that the major advertisers deem "negative,” or that does not contribute to the publication’s bottom line. This was learned while working as a writer and editor of an industry trade journal. It has been confirmed ever since by colleagues in the business.
"Negative", the code word for all things to be avoided in print, covers a host of things from a critique of a product or a comment about an industry executive, to an analysis of a channel policy, a business practice or marketing strategy. It is an enormous territory to avoid. To survive, the trade journals inevitably forgo sensitive topics and seek out others that are flattering or at least acceptable to their patrons, the advertisers. Those issues within the wall of acceptability include many important topics and they are covered professionally.
Any magazine in this industry whose primary source of income is advertisements, not readers, will make this accommodation to the economic censors. Over time, it becomes habitual and instinctive so that the need for pressure from the patrons seemingly disappears and it may actually feel like freedom. It is quite the opposite. We have personally seen threats and actual cancellations by major advertisers due to the publication of relevant and factual articles.
The food that is served within the walls of "advertiser-approved" coverage can be shrimp cocktail at press conferences and filet mignon dinners at industry trade shows, but those who sip the white wine know the boundaries.
Having worked as consultants and speakers in several other industries, we can attest that this comprehensive censorship is not unique to the printing industry, but have found it to be significantly more severe in the graphic arts industry than in others. Newer and more dynamic industries have fewer sacred cows. Readers have access to irreverent and satirical commentary. Decisions and policies of industry executives are not exempt from critique or even calls for an executive's resignation or removal. Channel conflict is acknowledged and dealers and manufacturers publicly sort out their differences. If the channel is not meeting customer needs, the failings are publicized and addressed. This greater freedom is possible partly because the base of advertisers is wider and more diverse but also because the readers demand high quality content. There is wide recognition that their businesses depend upon timely and factual information
Printing, as a long established and mature industry, dominated for decades by three or four domestic manufacturers and viewing itself immune to market or (in pre-digital times) technology forces of change, has been much less demanding of or even interested in new points of view. Printing had been the exclusive information mass media for centuries. American companies, in pre-global economy days, ruled their domestic market. What need was there, in the view of many, for critical inquiry?
Lacking alternative perspective, many domestic manufacturers were unprepared to compete with offshore vendors and sought to cope with punitive channel control policies. Others have missed technology advances leaving them mired in the obsolete duplicator press field or walled in the narrowing offset printing supply markets. Dealers have ignored the potential of the Internet in lowering channel costs. And channel conflicts that have bred a culture of mistrust and adversarial manipulations between US dealers and manufacturers have lingered for decades unresolved. Little information was offered to point out these follies since it was viewed as "negative."
See Part Two Tomorrow: Free Marketing and Wire Taps