On Friday, June 24, 2011, Michael Makin, President & CEO of the Printing Industries of America distributed by email a "Special Announcement." In it, Makin says, "In Obama's announcement, he equates the printing and mailing of the Federal Register as a stack of 'expensive doorstops' and 'stupid spending' that 'doesn't benefit anybody.' By dismissing pint as 'pointless waste' that 'no one reads,' one may infer a negative perception of a stalwart industry or mistakenly assume that printed material is a dying and irrelevant relic."

WhatTheyThink did extensive research to uncover the full story, and as a result feel that this letter to the President was an overreaction and that the President's comments were taken out of context.  We have included references in the article that you can check for yourself to make your own decisions.

We also spoke with Makin prior to publishing this article, and his comments are included below.

What Is the Federal Register?

Let's start with the basics.  What is the Federal Register? There is a wealth of information at the web site for the Office of the Federal Register. There, it states that the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) provides access to the official text of Federal regulatory material, Federal laws, Presidential documents and Federal organizations, programs and activities. The Federal Register has just celebrated its 75th year.  Upon the celebration of its 70th year, the organization published its history, according to Ray Mosley, Director of the Federal Register.

The Federal Register is the official record of governmental regulatory changes.  It is printed and distributed by the Government Printing Office, and also placed online for free access in the GPO's digital system, FDsys, which was established during the tenure of Bruce James, the 24th U.S. Public Printer, and was the brainchild of Robert C. Tapella, who ultimately became the 25th U.S. Public Printer. Dr. Joe Webb, Director of WhatTheyThink's Economics & Research Center, commented that the printed version of the Federal Register has, over the last several decades, been a measure of the amount of government regulation-more pages, more regulation; less pages, less regulation. Although Mosley stated that he had not heard that before, he did point out that the Federal Register, whether it is printed, in PDF form or in HTML, is recognized as the official record of Federal government regulations and all versions carry the same page number citations, adding, "Recognition by law and regulation of the electronic version of the Federal Register as having the same legal standing as the printed version is not a new thing.  A lawyer could go into court with an official authenticated print from the GPO web site and it would have the same legal standing as the officially printed version."

The Federal Register is the official record of governmental regulatory changes

The Federal register can be accessed online at www.FDsys.gov, as well as by visiting www.federalregister.gov. The latter site is relatively new and work on it is ongoing. President Obama's Campaign to Cut Waste video can also be found on the home page of this site (as of this writing). Mosley says, "At FederalRegister.gov, we have used XML technology and open source coding, with the documents being produced from the same file that produces the official version on FDsys. The content on our site is not yet recognized as an 'official' version but should be within the next few months. Because of the way the site is structured, anyone can download data and conduct searches, do analysis over the past ten years or more, or anything else they may need to do with the information."

Who Receives the Federal Register and How Is It Funded?

Both governmental and non-governmental organizations may subscribe to the printed version of the Federal Register. Online access is free. As of the end of Fiscal Year 2010, there were 4,700 subscriptions to the printed Federal Register by governmental agencies, and Mosley indicates that thousands of additional printed copies are distributed through the Federal Depository Library System, a program that was established by Congress to ensure that the American public has access to its government's information.

When a Federal agency is required to publish a new or revised regulation in the Federal Register, it is charged a page rate for that publication. That fee is a funding mechanism for the Federal Register and entitles the agency to a certain number of free printed copies of that issue. Mosley also reports that there are about 400 subscriptions to the printed version for organizations outside the Federal Government.

What Exactly Did President Obama Order and Why?

As part of an effort to eliminate government waste, the White House initiated a competition called SAVE (Securing Americans' Value and Efficiency). This initiative asks Federal employees to submit cost-cutting recommendations that will make government more effective and efficient while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.  The 2010 SAVE Award winner suggested ending distribution of printed copies of the Federal Register to Federal Government offices. As stated above by the end of Fiscal Year 2010, Government offices held over 4,700 subscriptions to the printed edition. Government-wide cancellations of these subscriptions would save approximately $4 million annually. Not a lot in comparison to the deficit we face, but not trivial, either.

As a result, in April 2011, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed Federal agencies to cancel their Federal Register subscriptions by May 13, 2011.  (NOTE: This was not an Executive Order directly from the President as stated by Makin; the Executive Order he cites doesn't reference the Federal Register). As with many things governmental, the wheels grind slowly. As of July 1, 2011, subscriptions for 1,011 copies (782 subscribers) have been cancelled.  The list of cancellations, which is updated every couple weeks, can be accessed here.
This still leaves more than 3,000 copies being distributed to Federal offices, 400 to outside subscribers and thousands of printed copies being distributed through the Federal Depository Library System. Obviously, the Federal Register is still being printed. Though Mosley believes it is inevitable that the printed version will ultimately go away, he says, "There is still a segment of our society that relies on the printed version.  As the generations that are into online instant access increasingly dominate the population, there will be less and less need for the printed version."

[President Obama] cites $33 billion in savings that have been identified just for this year-which is the primary point of the video message.

If you listen carefully to the President's video message on this subject, he uses the Federal Register as one of many examples of Government waste.  He displays a stack of the printed version of the Federal Register, which he asserts arrives daily at thousands of government offices and says, "no one reads this thing because it has been available on the Internet for years, which means taxpayers have been funding some pretty expensive doorstops."  He goes on to say, "That is just the tip of the iceberg," and cites a number of ways the Government is cutting back "pointless waste and stupid spending that doesn't benefit anyone." This includes such things as overnighting containers filled with nothing, eliminating thousands of unnecessary and unused government buildings, funding of web sites for private organizations, and more. He cites $33 billion in savings that have been identified just for this year-which is the primary point of the video message. It's hard to pick up an unused warehouse in Brooklyn and toss it down as an "expensive doorstop." The use of the printed Federal Register was for impact, something you can get your arms around and understand. Nowhere in any of the materials I read on this subject does anyone say buying printing is stupid spending or that the printing industry in its entirety represents pointless waste or produces expensive doorstops, as Makin seems to imply in his letter, video and email.

Makin's Response

Makin's letter to the President can be viewed here. In our discussion, he said, "Our issue was never the fact that the printing of the Federal Register is being stopped and something printed is going away.  We are very responsible in our position to the government and its need to reduce spending. We took offense at the President going on YouTube with imagery associating printing and printing presses with waste, stupid spending and other derogatory comments.  We understand that the printed version of the Federal Register will ultimately go away. Whether it is an Executive order or OMB directive doesn't matter.  It is the fact that the President used imagery and words that many printers already battling for survival found offensive. That's what we took issue with." Makin also stated that for every email he received stating that he took the President's remarks out of context, he received hundred from members who said it was the right thing to do. He also stated that he was on Capitol Hill the day the video was released with a number of Printing Industries of America members who were incensed when they saw the video. He adds, "The choice of imagery and words put together led a very poor message for an industry that is struggling enough."


Defend Print?

After Makin's email went out, I saw a number of tweets referencing it, saying that we needed to stand up as an industry and defend print against these sorts of tactics.  I say, "Get a grip!"

I love our industry as much as anyone else, and I get excited every day talking to innovative leaders in our industry running large and small businesses who are doing amazing things to grow those businesses, even during a harsh downturn.  These leaders recognize that the role of print is changing, and they are adapting their businesses to take advantage of not only the changing role of print, but also by adding services that bring value in a world where print must compete against alternative media.  They are finding ways to not only include print in today's modern media mix, but to make the entire mix more valuable because of the inclusion of printed component(s).

"Defending print" is a non-starter.  It is a tactic that didn't work for buggy whips or railroads or mainframe computers or hot type or stripping film, or the many other technologies that have been supplanted over the years. Where those technologies have found ways to co-exist, they have survived and often thrived.  Where they put efforts into defending "business as usual," rather than adapting to change-well, there are not a lot of hot type machines out there these days. And the strippers we hear about typically aren't working over a table laying out film.

"Defending print" is a non-starter.  It is a tactic that didn't work for buggy whips or railroads or mainframe computers or hot type or stripping film

What is called for is an understanding of the goals and objectives buyers of business communications are working to achieve and then playing a central role in helping them to achieve those goals and objectives. "Businesses formerly known as printers" that are taking that approach are thriving, and often filling those cylinders as well as making money from bits and bytes. Not every campaign and project will include print, nor should they. But there are many ways to make print a value-added component in today's business communications environment. Let's go after those and stop wasteful spending on "defend print" campaigns.

In Makin's letter to the President, he does point out that many printing companies embrace and integrate the Internet and new technologies, and that many are transforming to become "integrated communication solutions firms." This is certainly true and it is clearly a viable approach that will allow these firms to survive and thrive.  However, I still believe that our industry all too often takes a defensive, rather than a proactive posture. That posture makes us sound like we don't embrace change and don't understand that the world-and the role of print-is changing.  For most in the industry, that perception is untrue. Just as it is untrue that the President of the United States equated print as a whole with "stupid spending" that "doesn't benefit anybody."