Public Printer Robert C. Tapella (left), with Bonnie Blake, director of the NYU master’s degree program in graphic commucations, and Don Carli (Institute for Sustainable Communications).

The title of the dialogue was “Keeping America Informed 3.0: How Electronic Media, Digital Printing, and Sustainability Imperatives Will Change the Way the World Communicates.” Its main purpose, though, could be summed up in fewer words: to recap the tenure of Robert C. Tapella as the 25th Public Printer of the United States.

Tapella spoke about his three-year stint as the executive in charge of the Government Printing Office (GPO) in response to questions from Don Carli, senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC). This group co-sponsored the June 28 program with NAPL at the midtown campus of New York University in an event hosted by the NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS). Also sponsoring the dialogue were Presstek, Canon, and Newton Falls Fine Paper Company.

Installed as Public Printer by the U.S. Senate in October 2007, Tapella soon will retire from the post upon the presumed confirmation of a successor nominated by the Obama administration. At the GPO, he oversees a printing and information distribution enterprise with a $1 billion budget and a workforce of 2,250.

Tapella said that the GPO, which consumes 3 million tons of paper per year, also procures $650 million worth of print from external vendors, making it second only to R.R. Donnelley as a buyer of printing services. Some of this consists of expenditures in what Tapella called a “convenience printing contract” with FedEx Kinko’s, which he said enables the agency to buy from the print center chain at discounts up to 70%.

GPO’s own printing plant is a 1.5 million sq. ft. facility with a mix of conventional and digital printing capabilities. Under Tapella, the GPO also has moved in a paperless direction with the ongoing development of FDsys, a web-based system that provides electronic access to a wide range of authenticated government documents. It also operates GPO Access, providing free electronic access to information products produced by the federal government.

Tapella also said that the agency was about to release a new and “purely digital” version of the Federal Register, one of two periodicals that it produces for Congress (the other is the Congressional Record).

Asked by Carli how close the agency has come to 3.0 status as a digitally enabled information disseminator, Tapella replied, “We’re probably GPO 1.5.” But that wasn’t a bad track record, he added, noting that the 150-year-old agency was making progress toward its electronic goals and could additionally boast the business achievement of having operated “six consecutive years in the black.”

This has happened despite the fact, as Tapella later said, that of all government printing mandated for production by the GPO, only about half actually gets produced by the agency. Lax enforcement of the rules and long-standing procurement practices divert the rest elsewhere, he said.

Throughout his talk with Carli, Tapella emphasized that many of the GPO’s principal concerns were the same as those of private-sector printers. He spoke of dealing with budget cuts, coping with shorter runs, experiencing a decline in the overall demand for print, and rising to the challenge of modernizing production workflows.

“Our industry lags behind other industries in terms of metrics and standard operating procedures,” said Tapella, a graduate of the graphic communications program at California Polytechnic University and the former owner of a design business that specialized in political mailing.

He also said that he would like to see the GPO’s printing plant become less reliant on offset printing, adding that he still foresaw a role for conventional production. Many GPO customers, he told the group, “only care about pleasing colors” and are agnostic as to process as long as they get the quality they want.

He also observed that it was getting harder for printers to justify the investment cost of heavy-metal printing machinery, although he noted that the output quality of today’s offset equipment is far superior to what it was 10 years ago.

Asked about the GPO’s progress toward more sustainable operations, Tapella told Carli that the plant was down to “zero VOCs” in its pressroom solvents and was using green cleaning materials. The plant also is getting a more energy-efficient roof. He told Carli, however, “I don’t believe it’s my role to tell the printing industry what ‘sustainable printing’ is,” adding that the flow of that advice should be from the private sector to the public realm.

Tapella also professed faith in electronic alternatives to information distribution in print, displaying to the audience the iPad, Kindle DX, and iPhone he had brought with him to the talk. The iPad, he speculated, “is a platform that could be used for legislation” in Congress the way GPO-printed documents are used now. He said that the agency makes use of Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter to maintain a presence in the social networking sphere.

He summed up the record of the GPO by noting its role in protecting a basic right of all Americans—that of governmental transparency and access to public information. “The U.S. is the only country in which the public has a right to know what its government is doing,” said Tapella, looking back on three years of upholding that guarantee as the overseer of federal document production at the GPO.

Tapella will be the keynote speaker at WhatTheyThink’s second annual Print CEO Forum, October 2nd and 3rd, 2010, during Graph Expo.