Says Who? Anonymous Dead Tree Edition Blogger Talks All Things Publishing
Magazine manager by day, self-proclaimed chief arborist of the Dead Tree Edition blog by night, this anonymous publishing executive is in tune with the latest happenings in the publishing world. From printing to paper to postage, the Dead Tree Edition is a regularly updated blog devoted to tackling the hot-button issues.
In an interview with Publishing Executive Inbox, "D. Eadward Tree" discusses a myriad of topics, including the future of the U.S. Postal Service, how publishers can better inform the public of the green benefits of print, tips on how to best manage paper costs and more.
INBOX: What are the top challenges facing publishers today? What can be done to overcome these challenges?
D. EADWARD TREE: For most, the biggest challenges are shrinking their cost structure to match lower revenue levels; shifting from a single-medium business model to a multimedia business model; and developing a more fluid and nimble organization. Significant cost reduction usually requires challenging assumptions about such key characteristics as rate base, frequency, timeliness and design. In the production and distribution realm, co-mailing, changing binding formats, using different sized presses and changing paper stocks have reduced costs without cutting quality, page counts or copy counts.
As for business models, again, publishers should challenge basic assumptions. For example, the audience for a brand's Web site, books, logo licensing or custom publications may be different from the brand's magazine. Web audiences are especially unpredictable. I'm amazed by how many Postal Service employees and how few catalogers read my blog. But regardless of the medium, audience or revenue source, publishers should remember that content is their lifeblood. Some whiz-bang technology might bring people to your site, but only relevant content will cause them to linger and return.
The organizational issues aren't as obvious to publishers, but they're real. In the traditional publishing organization, people work in silos according to their specialty—e.g., editorial, advertising, production—and rarely interact with other silos. With leaner organizations and more opportunities for new revenue sources, that won't work any more. If advertising and editorial are enemies, if only marketers do marketing, if only IT people know search engine optimization, you're doomed.
INBOX: Do you believe the publishing/paper/printing industries do a good enough job touting their green benefits? What can be done to help spread their message?
DT: The paper and printing industries are finally starting to spread the word about the environmental benefits of printing vs. digital media. But most people, even in the publishing business, still believe digital is greener than print. They overlook the high carbon footprint of computers and data centers, as well as the toxic materials lurking in every laptop.
Publishers need to stop making and communicating such simplistic assumptions and to be certain their vendors aren't making bogus claims about going green by going digital. They also need to do more on making print greener. Going green starts with publishers becoming more educated about environmental issues so they can move beyond simplistic claims regarding recycled content and focus on such issues as carbon footprint and sustainable forestry. Unfortunately, companies that have been industry pioneers on this front like Wenner, Hearst and Time Inc. haven't received much acclaim for their admirable efforts.
INBOX: What effects do the USPS’ struggles have on the publishing industry? Can the USPS recover and continue to be a viable entity?
DT: The Postal Service is on the verge of running out of money, which may be just the kind of crisis we need. Even Congress is starting to understand what mailers and postal officials have known for yearsâ€•that the current USPS model isn't economically viable. It’s easy, but mostly wrong, to blame postal officials for the problems.
The fault lies mostly with Congress, which has prevented the USPS from downsizing and has essentially been stealing billions of dollars annually by requiring the USPS to prepay retirement benefits. If not for that retirement benefits shell game, which has nothing to do with retirees and everything to do with making the federal deficit look smaller, the USPS would've been profitable until this year. Because the USPS must operate at break-even, the inefficiencies and prepayments foisted on it by Congress have been borne by mailers in the form of higher postal rates.
The thinking used to be that higher postal rates didn't hurt demand much, but postal officials realize that's no longer true, given such low-cost electronic competitors as the Internet, e-mail and online banking. Postal officials aren't trying to fix their problems with higher rates, though I think we’ll see small exigent rate increases next year instead of the usual inflation-based increases. Most of the USPS’ efforts are rightly placed, though sometimes clumsily executed on the cost sideâ€•e.g., consolidating processing centers and post offices, downsizing its workforce through early retirement incentives, implementing the Flats Sequencing System, and getting prepared to eliminate Saturday delivery. It’s also going after additional business with initiatives like its “Summer Sale” and the recently announced partnership with FedEx regarding merchandise returns.
The USPS still makes huge mistakes. The Intelligent Mail program has been one disaster after another. Proposed regulations earlier this year that would've forced mailers to discard billions of window envelopes are a classic case of bureaucracy run amok. But postal officials finally seem to be learning from their mistakes, acknowledging when they've gone wrong and working more with other parts of the supply chain to avoid future gaffes.
Many mailers are hoping Congress passes partial relief on the retirement benefits front, but I fear that would be wasting a good crisis and just deferring problems. If the legislation passes, the USPS would have to make a smaller prepayment than normal on Sept. 30. If not, it'll probably renege on the entire $5 billion-plus payment, which it shouldn’t be making anyway. One benefit of the current crisis is that now the general public knows about the USPS’ financial problems. Average citizens hear about local post offices that might close or read discussions about eliminating Saturday delivery. That should put more pressure on Congress to fix the USPS, or give it the freedom to fix itself rather than using it as a political football.
INBOX: With the recent fluctuation of paper prices, what are some tips for publishers to help manage costs in this area?
DT: Paper mills don't announce price decreases, and often fudge when announcing increases, so it's important to get pricing information from multiple sources—mills, brokers, industry publications and blogs. Mills are responding to overcapacity by developing new products that can take the place of higher-cost papers. Make printers compete on paper waste or allowances as well as price. Ask whether they can use narrower rolls without you changing page widths. It's amazing how many publishers use rolls that are wider than necessary, often because they didn't challenge sloppy work by a printer's estimating department.
INBOX: As publications shift their focus online from print, what can publishers do to optimize both of these channels, for readers and advertisers?
DT: Publishers need to stop talking about print vs. digital. Readers don't think that way; they use print for some purposes and the Web for others. Some digital products have been disasters, but no one's running around saying digital is dead. In the same way, print isn't dead. It's just that some print-based business models are broken. People who say digital is the future need to think about what form of digital they mean—free Web, pay-wall Web, digital newsletters, etc. If e-book readers are the medium of the future for magazines, then some publishers are sowing the seeds of their own destruction by skimping on paid-subscription print magazines. Tomorrow's subscribers to the Kindle-based magazine are probably today's subscribers to the print magazine.