Is variable data printing for newspapers finally ready for prime time? Tribune Direct’s installation of a Kodak Prosper digital press (see related story, page 14) could provide some of the answers production directors and publishers are looking for, but VDP is certainly not a new concept.

In the fall of 1999 I was invited to present a series of seminars for Ifra in Europe to discuss how newspapers might use VDP to create publications with customized content and targeted ads.

As an author of two books for commercial printers on digital presses and variable data printing, I understood the technology but not the newspaper business. To be honest, the subject and invitation were intimidating. So I packed my bags and traveled to newspapers to learn more about their business and the challenges associated with implementing VDP within their operations.

Simple in theory

What I learned was this: The notion of VDP makes sense, but history and operational issues make deployment challenging.

Newspaper publishers already know that different people prefer to read about different subjects. Research continually finds groups or clusters of readers who consume only certain sections. For example, you may find a cluster that only reads the first two sections while others read the sports first and comics second.

For years, people have talked about customized publishing. Many don’t realize that the concept’s first roots took place more than 45 years ago, when the staff at Farm Journal began using computers to gather information about its readers.

In 1982, the publication worked with printer RR Donnelley to create a process, called selectonic binding, which enabled the magazine to create different versions of the publication based on specific reader interest. As a result, dairy farmers received  a different publication than hog farmers. While innovative from a database-driven publishing perspective, it was a financial failure, leading some critics to believe that customized publishing would never be a viable concept.

Today’s environment

Fast-forward to today. A number of publishers, ranging from MediaNews Group to Time Inc., have experimented with so-called individualized publishing (see related story, page 12).

The advent of tablet devices, particularly Apple Inc.’s iPad, has further reignited debate about the concept. Why can’t people aggregate content from multiple newspaper and website sources? CNET, in an article it posted about one aggregation app, called Early Edition, described it as being “what happens when high-tech meets old-school.”

Clearly, there is a renewed interest in customized publishing.

And let’s not lose sight of how VDP can benefit advertising. If a company can send ads tailored to an individual’s buying habits — say Target sending diaper ads to households with babies and hoodie ads to homes with teenagers — how valuable would that be?

What is even more intriguing is the idea of combining newspaper ads with direct mail for those advertisers who want higher response rates and more sales. The blended distribution model has shown that combining newspaper ads with direct mail results in better response rates and/or sales then either alone.

In theory these are great ideas, and it was thrilling to present these concepts in Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm. But while the presentations were filled with data, charts, graphs and case histories, few newspapers have experimented with VDP.

The obvious question is why? Is there a gap between the theory and the reality?

One of the biggest hurdles, of course, is managing the delivery of customized publications. Instead of grabbing just any newspaper and throwing it on the stoop, carriers would have to keep track of where each paper would go. But that’s only one of many challenges, including:

■    Purchasing and maintaining enough digital presses to satisfy demand. Even though modern web-fed inkjet presses have speeds rated as high as 650 feet per minute, that output pales against that of a web offset press.

■    Cost. Digital press costs have come down, but they are still pricey. The price of consumables, along with finishing systems and the integration of workflow software, require additional cost considerations. Adding color inkjet heads to an offset press may become the most practical way to add VDP to newspapers. That option, in fact, was discussed in a back room at last year’s Graph Expo. One day after the floor closed, an invitation-only event at the Grand Ballroom in the Peninsula Chicago Hotel brought together representatives from direct-mail providers RR Donnelley, DST Output, and IWCO Direct and Cabot, a Boston-based vendor of inkjet colorants. The panelists talked about many inkjet-related topics, but one of the most interesting was that some printers were installing color inkjet heads on their web presses, thus creating a platform in which they could print using offset, color inkjet, or a combination of both (see sidebar, page 15).

■    Database management. There are two basic types of marketing databases — customer databases and external databases. Customer databases are compiled internally and contain information about your readers taken from anywhere in the relationship-building process (subscriptions). External databases are collections of specific individuals and their characteristics. These are different levels of data, and some are easier and faster to master then others. If you just want data about average household incomes that is much easier to gather and digest than demographic data or data that measures previous purchases. The stitching required to integrate a blended distribution model with direct mail is a more complex and longer endeavor. In addition to the time commitment, managing disparate databases requires servers, hard disk storage, fast networks and staff.

Changing models

A 2009 PriceWaterhouse Coopers study analyzing newspapers in the digital age began with this paragraph:

“The newspaper publishing industry is facing a structural challenge in which paid titles have seen a long-term decline in circulation volume while advertisers have been moving from newspapers to online channels and into new formats. These trends are forecast to continue, and structural changes are now being exacerbated and accelerated by the global economic downturn.”

No surprise there. The entire printing industry is going through structural changes and every industry, including newspapers, is looking for new revenue streams, products and services with higher value and new business models. There are two getting the lion’s share of attention lately: offering online content through paywalls and offering subscription-based electronic versions through e-readers, tablets and other mobile devices.

But now a new option may be emerging, which ironically is more print-focused. The latest generation of inkjet presses, coupled with the ability to add color inkjet heads to offset presses, may open the door to a cost-effective way for newspapers to offer variably printed data to their readers and advertisers.

The ideas first discussed a decade ago may finally become a reality.

Howie Fenton is a senior consultant at NAPL. He can be reached at 720.872.6339