US printing office reinvents itself to keep presses rolling

 

Washington

One sunny afternoon this week, the giant presses at 732 North Capitol Street NW rumbled to life, a reminder that the ink-and-paper era has not yet come to an end.

The Department of Homeland Security's Voter Assistance Guide for new citizens rolled off a Heidelberg press at the Government Printing Office. A journeyman wearing earplugs and a red T-shirt stood sentry over the massive machine, replenishing five-pound cans of ink as soon as they emptied onto the printing plate.

The scent of ink and paper and the oils that lubricate the engines of one of Washington's last manufacturing facilities wafted across the plant floor. Aside from the whirring of the press, the room was quiet, another reflection of the fact that the legions of compositors, proofreaders, platemakers and press operators on three shifts who once filled these press rooms a block from Union Station have long since disappeared.

In their place are young Web developers and information technology specialists trying to reinvent one of the government's oldest, proudest institutions. And, for now at least, succeeding.

In an era when 97 percent of federal documents are now created electronically, people ask why the printing office still exists. Politicians are calling for smaller government, and some have sponsored legislation ordering that printed copies of congressional bills and resolutions cease. House Republicans tried last year to slash the agency's budget by more than 20 percent.

Evidence of its obsolescence is mounting. The Federal Register and Congressional Record, GPO's signature publications, have plummeted to 2,500 copies from a 30,000-copy run two decades ago. In that time conventional government printing has shrunk by half. At 1,900 employees, one of last blue-collar strongholds in a white-collar bureaucracy is at its lowest point.

The printing office's leader has a salve for this decline: rebranding.

"We needed a plan," Davita Vance-Cooks says. "People are asking questions like, 'Your name is GPO. Are you still printing?' " Her official title is "public printer," the "k" lopped off "public" sometime in the last century.

Her answer, when she became the first woman to lead the agency last January, was this: "You can't just come into the situation we're in and say, 'Status quo.' " Then she smiles. "We're a poster child for adaptation."

Vance-Cooks released a five-year strategic plan this week that sets out a trajectory for the agency, which was founded on the eve of the Civil War. The GPO will still print the federal budget, the Code of Federal Regulations and many other publications that people can touch. But it's in the process of becoming a digital library holding the government's most important electronic documents and a workhorse for a post-Sept. 11 security culture.

The GPO began printing passports 80 years ago, stitching them together by hand in its bindery. For several years it has served as the printer of secure government IDs — biometrically designed passports and border-crossing smart cards. With 200 million secure cards printed in the past fiscal year, the agency is counting on the business to continue its exponential growth.

The strategic plan enshrines the new mission in nine pages of bureaucratese, to wit: "GPO will continue to leverage its historical strengths to sustain and advance openness in government." There's a new motto, too: "Official. Digital. Secure," seemingly designed to make us feel we can trust this newfangled entity as we did in 1863, when it first printed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"This is still a very vibrant agency," says John Crawford, its 71-year-old plant manager, walking the wooden press floor to oversee Thursday's run. He's an ebullient man with a shock of white hair, whose wife of 51 years still lays out his clothes in the morning. When he started work as a bookbinder 47 years ago, the GPO had 8,500 employees.

"It's not dying. It's growing," Crawford says. "But in a different way than before."

Indeed, Vance-Cooks calls "GPO" a misnomer. "I personally believe we should be called Government Publications Office," she says.

One of her first acts as printer-in-chief was to meet with the unions, which agreed to buyouts of 330 laborers last year. "I hope I was able to calm some people down," she says. "There is a role for everyone, but it's changing."

Pressmen are being trained to operate digital presses designed for shorter runs. When they retire, their jobs will move to a new generation schooled in building e-book partnerships and designing iPhone apps.

Jon Quandt is a soft-spoken, cerebral program manager who came to the GPO through a federal internship and now oversees mobile products. These consist so far of a guide to House and Senate members, the daily compilation of presidential documents and the federal budget.

Quandt, 29, is a former academic who, when he was contemplating a dissertation on American antebellum history, found that many of his sources had been printed by his employer. That's what keeps him glued to the agency's fight for survival. "While I'm all about the new, I have a strong respect for the past," he says.

And the GPO is still a place that reveres the past, from the marble-and-brass lobby of its Romanesque Revival building to its bookstore, which still stocks hard copies of such titles as "International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea." The public papers of the president, the twice-a-year collection of the chief executive's official speeches, addresses to Congress and other communications, are still bound by hand, the endpapers marbled and cover boards wrapped in gold-stamped leather.

For whose who fear the end of the printed word, there is good news. GPO officials, working with librarians in the federal depository system, have come up with a canon of about 160 titles that will continue be printed by the GPO indefinitely, from the Economic Report of the President to the Internal Revenue Bulletin. And the Library of Congress still only officially recognizes print and microfiche formats as archival records.

"There are people who may believe the government should not publish anymore," says Mary Alice Baish, the GPO's superintendent of documents. "But no matter what, there are essential titles that should always be available to the public.

"In print."

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