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PRINT INDUSTRY USES ITS OWN TECHNOLOGY TO ITS ADVANTAGE

Now that the Internet is everywhere, old-fashioned ink-on-paper printing will go the way of the stagecoach and gaslight, right?

Not exactly.

Instead of being pushed aside by electronic publishing, printers are flocking to new technologies that allow them to keep pace with the digital age -- and most are doing better than ever in the current strong economy, industry experts said.

"I think last year was a pretty good year for our industry," said Tim Freeman, director of the Printing and Imaging Association of New York State Inc.

For 1998, Buffalo's printing sector probably will post a 3 to 5 percent improvement over 1997's sales of $854 million, Freeman estimated. The industry employs 6,315 people locally at 270 companies, according to the association. Statewide, printing accounts for 81,840 jobs at 3,947 companies.

"A lot's driven by advertising. As long as the economy remains strong, our local industry remains strong," he said.

But while printers on average saw business increase, some were hurt disproportionately as the low Canadian dollar lured a few printing jobs north of the border.

Technological advances helped Quebecor Buffalo Printing Inc., Western New York's largest printer, rebound from a business setback in 1996. Recently the company recalled the last of 400 workers laid off when the site lost the task of printing Readers' Digest three years ago.

A new piece of binding equipment moved from a different Quebecor site helped the company land the task of printing 110 million coupon books for the Eckerd drugstore chain nationwide, General Manager Kevin Clarke said.

The machine allows coupons to be torn out of the purse-size book without destroying the binding -- a key attribute that won the lucrative, full-color printing job for Quebecor, he said.

In addition, a $7 million high-speed book press allowed the plant run off 800,000 copies of the Starr Report in September, getting the public-domain material to bookstores days after the report was released via the Internet.

New techniques and processes are generating business at smaller shops as well.

"It used to take days or weeks to do a color printing job, and the minimum cost was thousands of dollars," said Stephen Zenger, president of the 45-employee Zenger Group in Buffalo.

Now, as customers prepare much of their own artwork on computers, a color printing job can be turned around in hours, he said.

The Zenger Group's six divisions reflect the changing face of printing, with digital photography, mailroom services and small-batch color press runs in addition to large-scale lithographic printing.

The hopes of growing business volume encouraged three entrepreneurs to buy two Buffalo printing businesses and form 21st Century Press, Vice President of Sales Meg Crimmen said.

"We worked for a company that had gone from $3 million to $20 million sales since 1983," she said. "We decided that if we were going to work that hard, we want to be doing it for ourselves."

The other two partners in 21st Century are Tracy Dziedzic and Michael Morreale. The terms of their 1998 acquisition of CCS Princeton and Guerra Press Inc. weren't disclosed.

But as technology changes printing, the industry's relations with union labor is growing more complicated. About half of the industry's 6,315 workers are unionized, most at large printing operations, Freeman estimated.

Quebecor's resurgence was aided by a long-term pact with seven unions. By insulating the plant from strikes for the better part of a decade, the pact helped the site win new business from delay-wary customers.

But at other locations, concerns about non-union companies and partly unionized companies eating into union shops' work has brought about a crackdown on use of the valuable union label.

Four unionized printers in the past year have had their union label privileges yanked, as printing unions cracked down on the outsourcing of work. Suspended were Franklin Printing, Keller Bros. & Miller, Buffalo Lithograph and Holling Press Inc. Franklin, a small, four-person shop, subsequently went out of business.

In addition, non-union Spectra Screen Printing Co. in Buffalo was sued for putting a union label on jobs it performed for union shops.

The label is a small mark that means big money to some printers. Many corporations, political campaigns and labor organizations require the union label on their material.

To meet label requirements, the entire job needs to be performed by union hands, print shop owners said. But in today's more splintered and fast-paced industry, tasks such as pre-press or binding are frequently sent to subcontractors who may be non-union.

Complicating the issue is a split between two union groups that each issue a different label -- the Graphic Communications International Union and the Allied Printing Trades Council.

Holling Press had its GCIU label suspended for subcontracting work to a shop with the rival Allied Printing Trades label, company President Brian Maher said. Holling has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Buffalo challenging the suspension.