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Desktop Publishing's Legacy: 230,000 Fewer Commercial Printing Workers, and An Explosion in Content Creation Workers

Everyone thinks that the Internet has been the cause of a decline in print;

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: August 7, 2008

Everyone thinks that the Internet has been the cause of a decline in print; the real cause has been the lasting legacy of desktop publishing in the grander computer revolution.

Last month, U.S. commercial printing employment was below 600,000, which caught my attention. I went straight to my library of industry statistics. As best as I can determine using various government data, we're at levels not seen since 1986 or 1987. Commercial printing employment peaked in mid-1998, almost reaching 830,000. It's been quite a change from 1987 to now.

At that time, there were 70,000 employees in prepress trade shops (separators, platemakers, and trade typographers). Today, there are 25,000 with most of them are in some high-level publishing workflow, with nary a sense of what platemaking, separating, or typography was or might have been.

In 1987, there were 176,000 employees in book, magazine, and miscellaneous publishing; there are 300,000 today, augmented by another 50,000 or so micropublishing entrepreneurs.

Desktop publishing reduced the costs of production and stimulated the content creation process, and was a critical component of the march of new media. In 1987, graphic design did not even have its own industry classification code, as it was buried in something called "commercial art and design." Many of these workers referred to themselves as “illustrators.” About 52,000 employees worked in graphic design firms then, with another 4000 or so as freelancers. Today, there are 73,000 employees in graphic design firms, plus another 90,000 freelancers, more than three times 1987's level.

Even advertising employment is higher. There are 40,000 more workers in advertising than in 1987.

Commercial printing employment is now at 1987 levels, while publishing, design, and agencies have added more than 250,000 workers in the last 20 years. Not all of them are creative workers, of course. Without the ability to create content efficiently, however, even those workers who are not in content creation or content production positions owe their jobs to the creation process that is the reason for their employer's existence.

The loss of prepress has hurt the printing industry's financial performance, especially its profitability. In turn, the technological changes that undermined our industry created new opportunities. “Creative destruction” is a phrase used by economists to explain how technology and other factors destroy old ways of doing things and replace them with more productive methods, new products, and sometimes entirely new industries. Your perception of the effect depends on whether your skills are the ones being replaced. There is no doubt that the technologies and entrepreneurs that coalesced around desktop publishing two decades ago are still having ripple effects in our industry.

It is curious that the 230,000 loss in print workers in the last ten years is almost the same as the 250,000 new workers in content creation industries, isn't it?

There is another important point. The new workers are more inclined to be freelance professionals, working as sole practitioners, than ever before. A $10,000 Mac workstation today is a powerful production tool, capable of producing sophisticated, high quality media in almost any format. They're not always working alone, however. These workers are more likely to be working on a project basis rather than with a single employer, linked with other independent professionals, each with a unique expertise. Modern telecommunications and the Internet are only a hint of what is to come. Printing organizations need to recognize this empowered freelance revolution.

I am often asked what would draw more young people to the printing industry. I have always heard the same tired recommendations in my 30 years in the business, and we know they don't matter. There is only one thing that does it: successful, dynamic, and growing companies that do interesting and exciting things. One of the attractions to content creation businesses is the newness that is the essence of their projects: there is always some aspect of the content that has never been done before. Creating content, even in its necessary repetitive production tasks, is more attractive to young workers. Working as freelance plays into millennial generation themes of independence, time flexibility, and geographic freedom.

Manufacturing by its nature may not be able to compete with that. Quality control programs, for example, are designed to create a repetitive and predictable sameness of results without regard to content. Small print businesses may not be able to compete with the attraction to the content creation businesses unless its owner or management is somewhat charismatic, emanating a sense that the risk of tagging along will be worth it in the long run.

In the end, falling under 600,000 employees is just a number. It's a reminder of where we've been, and what may come. It's a reminder of how much the communications business has changed, and will change. The question is whether our industry's entrepreneurial spirits will create, individually and collectively, that successful, growing, dynamic, and intriguing culture that attracts workers and capital for these decades ahead.


For a look at what life was like at the beginning of the desktop publishing movement, this 1987 article from Money is illustrative.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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