Imagine networked desktop publishing where the desktops and printers are spread throughout the whole world. Publishing means newspapers, newsletters, books and posters in mass market quantities, but versioned and personalized for specific communities and individual users.

From the point of view of a writer, it would be easier than ever to see your story in print. If you’re a publisher, it means an efficient way to move from the web to print products that can attract advertising. If you are an advertiser, it means one more mass media with a low carbon footprint, unparalleled reach and a clear way to know if it’s working. For the citizen, it means the world as bookstore.

In the jargon of networks, this so-called “printernet” can have the same benefits as the Internet — massive parallel manufacturing with standards-based interfaces, real time production information and easy access for everyone. Each printer — the combination of the machinery and the intelligence that manages the machinery — is a print output node.

Each node is both part of the network and self-sufficient. When the nodes are working together mass customization of print product becomes commonplace at previously impossible speeds and quantities. Some recent developments illustrate the potential for printernet technology to enter the mix of communication media.

The Printernet for Newspapers

Some good examples of printernet technology in action come from Oce, a digital press manufacturer based in the Netherlands. The company is notable for its 2001 invention of the Digital Newspaper Network (DNN), which allows the distribution and printing of digital page files as newspapers. The DNN has output over 20 million copies since its inception.

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Oce’s Jetstream 2200

More recently, ProPrint reported that Spanish newspaper publisher Imcodavila bought Oce’s Jetstream 2200 rather than make an investment in a new litho machine. The old litho machine method made it difficult for printers to change copy, restricting them to large runs of identical newspapers. ProPrint reports that the Jetstream 2200 is a full-color inkjet digital printing system designed specifically for heavy duty use in corporate and commercial printing:

Up to 40 separate titles will be printed on the press — a mixture of dailies, weeklies and monthlies. Daily print runs will begin at 6,000 80-page color local newspapers, but the machine has the capacity to produce 24,000 a day.

Assuming the installation performs as advertised, imagine the possibilities. Each Jetstream machine can produce 24,000 80-page newspapers a day. That might mean 48,000 20-page newspapers a day. In my opinion, 20 pages might be just the right size for that daily newspaper connected to a rich website. Going back to the math, a print output node could have two machines. The node might then output 96,000 20-page newspapers a day. Ten nodes spread around the country or the world could then output 960,000 copies overnight with a minimal carbon footprint.

Because the content is driven by a data stream instead of captured on printing plates, each copy could, in theory, be customized to any size community and personalized for every reader.

The Printernet for Magazines

Recently, luxury automaker Lexus joined forces with American Express Publishing to put together a printernet experiment called Mine magazine. This magazine is different in that it can be customized for every individual reader; readers choose from a variety of editor-selected content from Time Inc. and American Express Publishing brands to make a magazine that appeals to them personally. Such specialization would not have been possible with traditional lithograph printing devices.

According to the project’s website, here’s the marketing pitch:

Want a magazine made especially for you? It’s easy: pick 5 magazines and we’ll do the rest. Within two weeks you’ll get the first of 5 issues of Mine. Each issue will include stories tailored specifically to your interests, whether providing timely financial advice, helping to find the perfect golf club, or inspiring your next vacation. Get Mine delivered the way you want — to your mailbox or to your email inbox. And best of all, it’s free.

The business model is very clear and very traditional. The idea came from Team One USA. Lexus is a long term client. Team One pitched the idea to Time Inc. and American Express Publishing got involved. Lexus did the media buy, which included other placements in various Time Inc. properties.

But this is a different kind of advertising. The old measure of eyeballs or click-throughs is replaced by hard leads. According to MediaPost:

Lexus will base its next move on how well the magazine sells and the number of subscribers who show real interest in Lexus vehicles. Once a consumer subscribes, he or she is taken to an RX page with a dealer locater — ‘so we will have hard leads,’ says Paul Silverman, executive media director at Team One.

Once “hard leads” is a measure of success, the age-old problem of not knowing “which 50% of the advertising works” is solved.

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Readers can choose content from Time Inc. in Mine magazine

If print product connected to web intelligence keeps lowering the cost of customer acquisition and retention, commercial enterprise will consistently and predictably advertise in print. Media advertising then starts changing into what Terry Heaton calls “enabling commerce.” That’s a sensible reason to advertise both on the web and on paper. Sensible reasons get very close to advertising that sells itself.

According to Fast Company, “essentially, Mine is a printed, expanded RSS feed.” I would argue that a better way to think about it is that this is information that is organized in “the Cloud” and then output in the form of printed product. It is an RSS feed that is curated by a human editor.

The editor presents a defined range of content choices, created by reporters, writers and photographers. But the readers choose the stories they want to be told. The user customizes the magazine to her individual interests, although the customized magazine will also include some stories chosen by advertisers. If the right story is presented in the right form at just the right time, commerce is enabled. The commercial enterprise starts the conversation with a new lead that might lead to customer acquisition and perhaps a lifetime customer.

The Printernet for Wikis

Separate from the commercial world, some information on the web wants to be available in print form for off-line consideration and mass distribution.

Wikipedia in Germany is stress-testing Wikipedia content delivered in dead tree book form. The user selects content and gets the book from a print partner of the Wikipedia Foundation, PediaPress. They are now live on the Dutch, French, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Simple English language editions of Wikipedia. The created books are then available for purchase from the PediaPress website. The books are produced after they are ordered.

They print in the U.S. and the U.K., but the potential manufacturing problem is that energy and logistics costs are going to limit global distribution. PediaPress might just be the web portal that catalyzes the formation of a printernet tying together print output nodes that specialize in paperbacks printed in black ink only.

Print product manufactured in just a couple traditional printing plants is too limited. The energy costs and carbon footprint of long range delivery make them unsustainable. Global access, which Wikipedia has achieved on the web, needs a well developed, reliable, global print output network. That’s the potential tipping point path for the printernet.

Michael Josefowicz spent 30 years at Red Ink Productions, a boutique print production brokerage he co-founded which served New York-based design studios and non-profit organizations. He came out of retirement to teach production at Parsons The New School for Design for the next 7 years. He now blogs about print at Print in the Communication Ecology and about the digital printing industry at Tough Love for Xerox.

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