Features Chronicle Opinion
What happens after COVID-19 for print?

Fasten your seatbelts!

July 30, 2020
By Nick Howard


The entire world has entered new territory. Young or old, male or female, smart or dumb, the virus plays no favourites and not only disrupts lives but also literally kills. H.G. Wells, the English science-fiction author, probably nailed it back in 1897 when he wrote the classic War of the Worlds. But for seemingly innocuous bacteria, the Martians would have destroyed humankind. The 2003 SARS virus was never quite like this. As Toronto was a hot zone, I recall only being annoyed because very few of our international clients would travel to our plant. Foolishly, I had no idea of the implications of not containing something we can’t see or smell.

How quickly our everyday patterns of life changed with COVID-19. Once this virus is isolated and a vaccine developed, there will still be trillions of dollars left unrecoverable, along with potentially millions of shattered lives. But there are significant problems for various commercial segments of the economy: those who have been waging battles of survival for the last 25 years. One of these is of course our own printing industry.

It would be totally inappropriate for anyone (me included) to suggest how COVID-19 will play out. But I come from the printing industry and this article is read by our community. So, I must pass on what seems obvious. Whenever a catastrophe arises, and no one living has seen this latest incarnation, humans somehow adapt. The 1973 Arab oil embargo crippled supplies of gas but also changed our driving habits and the way we built our cars. Fuel efficiency was the new buzz word. Even with this inherent ability for survival, we slowly went back to our old ways, but never exactly the same as before.


The Spanish Influenza of 1918 infected 500 million people, of which 17 to 50 million perished. I researched our museum library to see what, if anything, print publications were reporting during the period between January 1918 and December 1920. Virtually nothing — not one line in any significant print industry publication mentioned the noticeable adverse effects this influenza was having. I also couldn’t find the words “flu” or “influenza.” The closest comment was tucked away in 1920 by the British Penrose Annual’s William Gamble: “then there have been the deaths of a number of older workers in the trade – deaths hastened in many cases, perhaps, by the trying conditions of the times.”

Most of the newspapers of the period spun a completely counterfactual story that suggested because the Spanish King (Alfonso XIII) was gravely ill somehow, the virus must have emanated from Spain just as today countries looked for someone or some state to blame. Today, historians are divided on the epicenter pointing to two locations: Haskell County, Kansas, U.S. or Étaples-sur-Mer, France. The experts are, however, in agreement that the Spanish Flu had nothing to do with Spain.

But there is one remarkable difference between the influenza pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19: the ability for businesses and the general public to bypass the printed word. By the end of 1919, the market was back to normal. The Great War had ended, soldiers returned to their jobs, and the printing industry was experiencing a significant boom. Today, with so many people either working from home or laid off, unless they’re sequestered with a book, they are on their computers or watching television. Should they get hungry, they order-in using many of the home delivery apps. But today the virus is front and centre. Unlike 1920, everybody is calling it out and not burying it as if it is someone else’s problem. One hundred years later, society has vastly more tools at our disposal, some of which can further damage print.

In the United Kingdom, there is a growing dislike by shop owners accepting cash. The chance of catching germs from paper notes and coins is a possibility, and now more than ever. So, we tend to use credit cards or our smartphones to pay for things, even a cup of coffee. How will the long-term effects of virtual cash help the security print industry, including the manufacturers of specialized machinery? The COVID-19 virus just sped this transition from paper to digital, and it is not reversible. Even a few years ago, several countries, particularly Sweden, discouraged the use of cash, and many establishments simply refused to take it. The trend was already there before the COVID-19 boost.

The clear benefits of embracing software have a startling effect on jobs, too. Banks used to be nothing but bricks and mortar with ridiculous closing times, such as 3:30 p.m. That’s why everyone joked about “banking hours.” Tellers, long the only connection to your money, are vanishing and replaced with machines and online banking (which is the most profitable). The same is happening in our stores and supermarkets. Self-service checkouts are an everyday thing. News now flows in a continuous stream 24/7, and we are not only hooked, but extremely comfortable paying our bills or buying a new pair of shoes with our smartphones. Gone are the early days of E-Commerce when we were scared to leave credit card information on a website. For the porn industry, print versions were systemically wiped off the face of the earth by the internet. The printing of porn was something few printers were proud of, but it sure put a lot of their kids through college and made millionaires of more than a few.

Add the excellent fortune of enhanced and more abundant data, and no wonder businesses increasingly want to become not only paperless but also cashless. This nasty virus is merely clearing the path faster than anyone expected. Today there is not only a wish for streamlining business but an actual need. As of this writing, most restaurants are closed, as are coffee shops that have seating. Effectively, these businesses cannot survive unless they have drive-thru or can deliver. Each step forward means one step back for print. Our ecosystem just got a whole lot smaller.

COVID-19 now makes it even more difficult to at least sustain the small slice of the communication pie. During the early stages of a mass shutdown, many print clients had no choice but to reassess how they could maintain marketing campaigns without the need to print anything. A most explicit example of this about-turn is in companies now communicating how they are coping with disruptions and encouraging customers to follow them on social media or company websites. Staff working from home linked by cloud-based software: Voila! No changes at all to how we serve you. Perhaps you noticed your suppliers had communicated lately only via social media or email?

Conceivably, packaging is immune. Oddly the “eyeball” sector of signage, banners, and point-of-sale should be safe. Eyes don’t reach out and touch signage as fingers do a magazine or envelope. Besides, we will be excited to get outdoors, and guess where most of the large format is? Outside.

For everyone else, we have reached another setback. With so many people impacted by COVID-19, anything that can be transacted remotely will be. No building can be completely sealed to prevent vermin from finding a way inside. So it is with technology. The moment a better or cheaper way is invented, humans will find it. I’m less concerned with COVID-19, more worried about how we charge back. Fasten your seat belts, our mighty print industry will need to be brilliantly creative to win some of it back.


Nick Howard, a partner in Howard Graphic Equipment and Howard Iron Works, is a printing historian, consultant and Certified Appraiser of capital equipment. 

This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of PrintAction. Click here to check it out.