Now more than ever, printers who can work with publishers to overcome the challenges posed by rising prices and shortages of paper, labor, and time are proving to be the unsung heroes of the publishing business. Linda Thewes, sales executive with Fry Communications, joined the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable—Sherin Pierce, Joe Berger, Gemma Peckham, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, and me—to talk about how it’s done.
Linda, who studied printing as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, has been with Fry for thirty years; prior to that, she spent five years with another printer. Printing, as we remarked, has changed quite a bit over the intervening years; a sentiment to which Linda wholeheartedly agreed.
Linda (laughing): Oh boy has it. I remember stripping, light tables—
Sherin: Exacto-knife, cut and paste--
Joe: Compared to those days, what do you see impacting printing today?
Linda: It’s a stressful time to be in printing, and there are a lot of contributing factors: rapidly escalating paper costs, paper shortages, other material costs increasing. And of course postage continues to rise. Co-mailing has helped offset rising costs, with more changes coming; we’re going to have to quickly figure out the impact of these changes, and how to continue to offset them; until we do so, our clients will likely experience some financial hits. Capacity is another challenge—the fall is always busy, as publishers are releasing catalogs and other marketing materials for the fourth quarter, and this year is particularly challenging, due to the labor shortage.
Bo: The entire supply chain is under duress, every piece, every industry.
Joe: What is causing the paper shortages?
Linda: We have many supply chain issues, including transporting, pulp shortage, and labor issues. A lot of capacity was taken out of the market by mills to convert to products more profitable than paper stock.
Sherin: Corrugate, for example.
Me: Would you say these changes are temporary, or is this a new trend?
Linda: I wish I could say.
Sherin: I think it’s here to stay.
Bo: Containerized freight last year cost $4000; this year it shot up to $20,000. How can a business absorb that kind of change? Shippers are re-routing to more profitable markets.
Sherin: Other products can adjust more easily and absorb the change through changing their pricing. It isn’t so easy for publishers, although we’re going to have to sit down and revisit all our prices.
Bo: Everything is going to be more expensive, and we’re going to have to get in front of that. Meanwhile, the whole country is looking for truckers. How is Fry managing?
Linda: We’re admittedly paying more for trucks, but we have good relationships with our truckers, and we’re thinking outside the box to circumvent the shortage. We’ve been able to transport mail by rail freight, for example, which has been a help.
Joe: What is causing the labor shortage?
Linda: I have some theories. Thanks to COVID, people who have worked their whole lives in manufacturing have seen that people can work from home, and want to make similar shifts. But that doesn’t work for us; you need a body present to run machinery. It’s hard to hire younger people into manufacturing, because they perceive there’s less flexibility.
Me: Are there more jobs in manufacturing to fill due to the former administration’s push to bring back manufacturing?
Linda: The trend seems to pre-date that.
Sherin: You can’t bring an industry back when they disassemble an entire plant. You have to bring back the equipment. But you’ve always had labor shortages in printing.
Me: Have COVID deaths impacted the labor force?
Linda: Well, COVID has forced people to rethink priorities and how and where they want to apply their resources. Can I live working fewer hours, making less money? Can our family survive on one income, rather than two? I don’t think it’s specifically deaths that have affected the labor force, at least not at Fry, thank God!
Joe: Bo made a statement that I come back to daily: the pandemic has advanced everything in publishing and printing by 5-6 years. What do you see?
Linda: There have been changes. With higher prices, we were always looking for ways to save costs. But even pre-COVID, the newsstand was heading in the direction of higher price, better quality products. And those exercises to cut quality to trim cost just aren’t happening now.
Not only in newsstand—medical books and trade publications, for example, are also maintaining higher quality product over lower pricing. If you are going to print, it is for a reason. You want the experience of the product. Run lengths are shorter, we have better data, and we only put the product in the hands of those it makes sense for. I used to get a Pottery Barn catalog every week. Now I do four times a year, which is plenty. Last time there was a giant jump in postage, catalogs disappeared—along with their sales. They’ve come back in a more sensible way. With this postage increase, publishers are looking to cut their mailing in smart ways. Some can’t do it right away, but we’re going to see these trends impact 2022 planning.
Joe: Tech-wise, what big changes have you seen?
Linda: The changes here, like everywhere, have been in terms of giving people the ability to work from home. On the floor of the plant, there haven’t been major tech changes in the last year or year and a half. We don’t have the ability to turn on a dime, it takes time to change equipment on that scale. That could be a problem if something major changes suddenly in terms of production formats.
Joe: Will your office staff come back to the plant or will they continue to work from home?
Linda: That’s a work in progress. They’ve proven they can work from home, but there are also advantages to having bodies present. As with many companies, we’ll likely end up with some kind of hybrid solution.
Bo: A big part of the equation that’s missing since COVID is customer interaction. I used to visit my printing plants two or three times a year. I used to bring three dozen New York bagels every time. While every plant will do its best, the personal relationship adds a little extra.
Linda: Agreed, there’s a great benefit to in-person meetings. It is a favorite day of mine when I can take a publisher on a visit to a facility. With the current Delta variant surge, however, we’re currently postponing most visits for the safety of our staff and to avoid jeopardizing print schedules due to mandatory quarantines after exposure to the virus.
Joe: People who don’t know how things are done can’t understand the challenges.
Sherin: As Bo says, the printers are the unsung heroes