But can you read on the darned thing?

January 24, 2010

Poor Richard has a confession to make. On weekend mornings he indulges in anachronous activities. That’s right. In his comfortable chair, with a cup of rich, black coffee at his left hand, he reads the newspaper. Not the new-fangled, online version at http://www.newsblip.com; Poor Richard reads the old fashioned black, white and read all over edition.

The bias towards paper is certainly predictable. Print on paper has been my livelihood for the last decade and some. But there is also a practical aspect to this antiquated predilection. At 50, Poor Richard finds the newspaper easy on his eyes.

My fishwrapper of choice is The Macon Telegraph.  The Telegraph, like other local papers in communities of our size, has struggled mightily with the changes of recent years. They have downsized, printing is no longer done in-house.  They’ve been bought and sold by newspaper chains in the throes of the struggle to reinvent an industry considered by some to be irrelevant. Through it all, they’ve done a remarkably good job of covering regional news and integrating very relevant stories and commentary from sister papers and the wire services.


Lot's of cool features, but can you really read on it?

The story that caught my attention this morning was a report from Stacey Burling of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The headline reads: Convention for neurosurgeons takes paperless to another level. (Yes, you can click on the link and read this online, too).

The gist of the story has to do with a decision made by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons to dispense with paper programs and proceedings at their next convention. Instead they’re going to give each attendee their own iPod Touch, pre-loaded with all of the programs, summaries, and even advertising that they would presumably have received on paper  at previous assemblages.

To quote the article:

Doctors will be able to use the iPods for messaging and for interacting with presenters during meetings. . . . Not only will the iPods encourage community building, but they will save a lot of paper.

The “green” reference, reiterated later in the article, was certainly as predictable as Poor Richard’s reaction to it.  I suspect that the driving force behind the initiative was much more economic than environmental. Some poor printer lost a good project (500,000 sheets to quote the article). The conventioneers are charged $100 each for the iPods. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons saves money.

Here’s the pertinent question: Is the decision practical?

When Poor Richard went searching for the online reference to the article cited above, he was assailed by unwanted audio that burst suddenly from the miniscule speakers of his Powerbook when the Philadelphia Inquirer business page was opened. That’s an annoyance. Poor Richard suspects that trying to read technical papers on the screen of an iPod will go beyond annoyance for many of the convention attendees.

Despite my confession of Luddite tendencies (see QR . . . U Ready?), Poor Richard is no technophobe. In fact, I am the happy owner of an iPhone. A gift from my children at Christmas a year ago, it has become pretty near close to indispensable. That means I could do without it if I had to, but wouldn’t voluntarily throw it in the river. I have some great “apps,” too. One of them tells me what’s on TV. Another can read QR barcodes.

I have also installed a book reader called Stanza, mainly because I am intrigued with the idea of dowloading public domain titles. Did you know that you can get the complete works of Mark Twain from Project Gutenberg? I downloaded Twain’s Innocents Abroad to my iPhone, with great anticipation, opened the ebook, and began to read. That’s where the fun stopped.

It’s not that the type is illegible.  The screen background is bright white and you can adjust the type size for ease of reading. But, the experience is lacking. In Middle Georgia jargon, “somethin just ain’t quite right here.”  First, regardless of the type size, you just can’t fit enough words on the page.  Flipping between pages is touchy . . . I seem to have no difficulty getting electronically misplaced, but a lot of trouble getting relocated.  And the feel of the read is just totally  . . . umh, strange.

There’s also something about the way we read electronically that is very different. Perhaps it’s because of the massive volume of information, or the hyperlinks, or Poor Richard’s propensity to get perpetually sidetracked; it seems nearly impossible to read online for understanding. Online reading seems almost self-conditioned for scanning and browsing. Indicative of this is the market for textbooks about computers and programming. All of the information needed to learn xhtml or javascript or php is available online, but the market for paper books on these subjects is still very viable.

For Poor Richard, and perhaps for my generation, reading in-depth requires a book: a real book, not a Kindle or an iPhone.  And I suspect (and hope) that the iPods distributed at the Surgeons’ convention will indeed create a “community building” environment, bolstered by some shared frustration at the limitations of the electronic documentation they receive.

Most of us will continue to embrace new technology for the advantages it offers. Poor Richard wouldn’t want to go back to the 10 pound car phone and Franklin Planner he used in the 1980s, but I also won’t give up my morning paper until it is pried forcibly from my fingers.

Anachronistically yours!

Opening Pandora’s box

January 3, 2010

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?