Printing, Publishing Industry Keeps Growing Locally

May 7, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS – Conventional wisdom has it that printing is a big industry in West Michigan, reportedly the sixth-from-the-largest component in the economy’s manufacturing sector.

But even with the help of The Right Place Program’s chief data cruncher, Jenny Shangraw, nobody’s quite certain just how big the industry is.

The latest data, from the U.S. Census Bureau five-year economic census in 1997, indicated the industry includes 208 printing establishments with an annual payroll approaching $130 million and which shipped out product worth close to $500 million.

But even that data is sketchy.

For one thing, mergers and acquisitions have been just as much a part of the area’s printing industry (see related story on Foremost Graphics) as banking, so the number of local firms that engage purely in printing undoubtedly has dropped.

Secondly, the line between printing and graphics on the one hand and publishing on the other is somewhat fuzzy. Legally speaking, the act of printing and delivering a client’s material constitutes publication.

But publication more popularly embraces the process of printing millions of copies of a foreign language Bible, or even something as modest as several thousand copies of the 2000 edition of the Business Journal Book of Lists. (Combined, printing and publishing employed an average of 6,600 workers in 2000, 100 more than in 1999.)

Moreover, many of the community’s printing (and publishing) firms either would be unable to print or greatly hampered in printing were it not for a large number of specialty firms, ranging from pre-press specialists, to finishers and front-end graphics designers. And nobody in the industry is clear about how many of those support firms there are.

But the local industry, in part at the urging of Right Place, is starting to establish a non-profit Printer’s Alliance that is going to get all of that information straight.

The current president of the Alliance is Deb Scott, owner of Copy Options. She explained to the Journal that the Alliance officially incorporated last November to replace the old Printers’ Craftsmen Club and several other industry organizations.

“The potential universe we’re looking at now,” Scott said, “goes beyond printing and imaging to include paper suppliers, binders, finishers and even agencies which do the design work. And we think it will come to about 600 firms all together.”

Scott and Greg Lindhout, an Alliance board member who is the president of Axis Digital Imaging, both have heard that perhaps a sixth of the nation’s printing industry is centered here – but both also say this statement is kind of an article of faith, and nobody is clear whether “here” means southwest lower Michigan, or the Upper Midwest, or the Chicago-Detroit axis.

But it’s the kind of thing they want to nail down, because knowing more about the printing galaxy that surrounds them likely means more opportunities for more business.

Recent census data is sketchy or missing (the 1997 economic census, for example, is simply missing some data about printing and publishing in the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland SMA). But some information is available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and it shows as interesting trend.

It shows, for example, that average hourly earnings for workers in the industry have gone from $6.79 an hour in November 1980 to $16.15 in November 2000. Annualized and expressed in Year 2000 dollars, that works out to a 12 percent hike from 1980’s $28, to $32,300.

Meanwhile, the time worked to earn those wages has dropped fairly sharply from 41.2 hours in November 1980 to 34.9 hours last November.

Arguably, such data indicate a sharp increase in productivity by workers in the craft ranging from press setters to set-up operators, plus the creation of high-tech positions that were little more than a dream in 1980: electronic scanner operators and electronic pagination system operators.

It is in such specialties that the industry has made a giant stride into the digital age.

In the last half of the old century, the new wrinkle -- offset printing (as opposed to direct impression from molded lead letters) involved a fairly tedious process.

It entailed photographing a page, producing a full-sized page negative (in which one had to allow for the tendency to shrink from 3 percent to 10 percent from original size) which compositors and set-up workers used, in turn, to photographically etch an aluminum plate that then went onto the press.

Nowdays, it’s often possible to by-pass photography and etching. Technology enables a pre-press shop to digitally “inform” a state-of-the-art press what it is to print. By-passing photography greatly hastens product turn-around time.

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