The Interview: Kerry Stackpole on Maryland’s printing industry

To anyone who might believe printing is a dying industry in a digital age, Kerry Stackpole says this: Look in your cupboard.

“Imagine opening your kitchen cabinets and having no labels on the cans,” said Stackpole, president of the Printing Graphics Association MidAtlantic. “Imagine a world without print.”

Despite the challenge that digital platforms and electronic media pose to traditional printing companies, printing remains the third-largest manufacturing employer in the state, the association says.

Maryland’s more than 652 printing companies, with more than 20,000 employees, post total annual sales of more than $3 billion and churn out labels, wrappers, annual reports, college textbooks, magazines, catalogs and direct mail, among other products, according to the Columbia-based trade group.

The association tries to help printing companies promote their products and remain efficient and competitive. Stackpole says he also spends time dispelling what he calls a “myth” about the industry’s environmental impact.

“There’s a notion that print is bad for the environment, when paper is one of the most recycled, renewable and reusable items on the planet,” Stackpole said. “We try to dispel the myth that by using paper and print you’re going to destroy the forest. That’s not the way it works.”

Stackpole, who has headed the 300-member printers trade association since 2009, discussed some of those issues recently with The Baltimore Sun.

How has the recession affected the printing industry in the state and how have companies adapted?

Printing is a lagging indicator in the economy. When people look to cut costs, they look to reduce publishing costs and printing. The most recent recession was a double whammy for the printing industry because not only did business opportunities fall off, but the values of commercial properties and the plants they operate also fell off. It put a double squeeze on printers.

Have companies in Maryland struggled more or less than elsewhere?

I don’t want to minimize that we had a fairly good number of companies that have either consolidated or merged with other companies, and a number of companies that have left the printing business entirely in this downturn. But we are fortunate that we operate in the shadow of the federal government, which continues to provide some real opportunities for print production. The government still prints a fair number of documents, and consulting firms print their reports.

Are Maryland printing companies struggling or growing? Have there been widespread layoffs?

We have a fair number of companies diving into the digital age and working diligently at bringing new technology online. We have others struggling in their market niche, who may not have enough capital to buy equipment to move into new fields. If you have set yourself up to do nothing but print magazines, it’s hard to pivot and do other products. Or, if you’re a book publisher, it’s hard to go from books to letterhead and stationery. Part of the challenge for printers is being able to pivot into the changes in the market.

As far as employment, in addition to some of the changes in the marketplace, the productivity gains in printing have been significant. So it takes fewer people and a different kind of talent. For example, 20 or 30 years ago, if you had an eight-color press, you had eight operators, each assigned to a different color. Most of that’s now automated and you have a single operator at a console.

What are the biggest challenges facing the printing industry?

The fundamental challenges facing the industry are really in the evolution of digital platforms. Printers are in some ways going back to the future. In the ’30s and ’40s, ideas for printed products came from printers. Then in the ’50s and ’60s, graphic designers and agencies shifted that away from them. That platform is shifting back to printers because customers want the best bang for their buck. [Printers] are faced with learning and mastering new digital platforms.

Digitally based printed products have continued to rise. Instead of putting ink on paper to produce materials, more and more clients and buyers are using digital imaging. [Traditional printing involves ink on paper, while digital printing uses toner on paper, Stackpole says.] Instead of printed inserts for magazines, inserts are printed using digital technology. [Some products] are produced on short-run digital on demand — as opposed to produced and inventoried and distributed — with shorter turnaround times. Expectations from customers are for high-quality work in shorter times.

What have been some of the effects of the Internet and new media on the printing industry?

Sometimes the … number of print runs has shrunk because of multiple platforms on which you can deliver content. But the rise of digital platforms has also given opportunities for printers. They can offer customers not only the opportunity to put ink and toner on paper but other electronic means. It’s a mixed blessing in the sense that there are now new ways printing companies can provide services — they already know how to move and position content, but … they have to become masters of new media forms quickly.

What is the fastest-growing area within the printing industry?

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