Our permanent addiction to the printed page

We just can't kick the hard-copy habit, which makes some people very happy

Ideas: The Paperless Chase

August 08, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

John M. Kane leans back in his chair ever so slightly, and a smile sweeps across his face.

"It ain't never goin' away," he says, making no effort to conceal the exhilaration that comes from knowing your future is secure.

"It" is paper. Not sheets of it. Not even reams. Boxes and boxes and boxes of paper.

Envision a warehouse the length of a football field and one-third as wide, with boxes covering virtually every inch of the floor and stacked three stories tall, and you get the idea.

Kane is proprietor of somewhere between 4 million and 5 million boxes of paper, and it won't be long before the number reaches 6 million.

In an age in which a single CD can contain 25 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica - equal to the height of an 80-story office tower if the volumes were stacked end to end - mere paper remains the country's ultimate safety net.

That explains why one of Kane's subsidiaries, Office Archives, is building its third gigantic warehouse and expects to replace its Virginia operation late next year with another mammoth facility.

The business "has an internal growth rate of about 15 percent," says Kane, president and CEO of the Kane Co. "Or, you can go out and knock on doors and offer a competitive service, as we do, and you'll probably get somewhere between a 20 and 22 percent growth rate."

The notion of a paperless society was probably always illusory, but who believed we'd still be consuming paper faster than loggers can level trees?

For skeptics, Kane rattles off the evidence:

A law firm with 100 attorneys will generate 30 boxes - or 36,000 sheets of paper - every day.

Much of United Parcel Service's annual 12 percent growth is from delivering documents, not parcels.

Most people, even the young reared on technology, hit the "print" button because they still prefer a hard copy.

A box of documents can be stored for 27 years for the cost of transferring its contents to tape or disk.

Documentation required

There is, though, a more practical explanation: In response to the wave of corporate scandals and the terrorists attacks in 2001, the federal government requires a paper trail to be established.

And much of that paper must be preserved and stored.

"Sarbanes-Oxley has set out a whole new ballgame on what you keep, how you keep it, and when you destroy it," Kane says, referring to the legislation bearing the names of Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Ohio Rep. Michael G. Oxley that dictates more rigid reporting and record-keeping procedures for businesses and nonprofits.

Almost two years ago, Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. and four other brokerage firms were each fined $1.65 million by U.S. regulators for violating e-mail retention requirements.

"People talk about being paperless a lot, and a lot of companies are going paperless for customers," Kane says. "But we're their backup. ... The paper is redundancy to a disaster."

While that's true, Kenneth R. Stanton, a professor of finance at the University of Baltimore's Robert G. Merrick School of Business, is doubtful that the road of the future will be paved with paper.

"I still see that we are gradually moving toward relatively less paper," Stanton says. "I think we will see paper largely displaced."

Companies, he says, already provide many services electronically that once relied on paper, such as money transfers and airline and concert tickets. As technology advances, including wearable computers, he adds, the need for paper will decline even more.

Stanton stops short, though, of predicting an entirely paperless society.

"It's hard to perceive how we do that," he says. "Some things are just more convenient when you can hold them."

That's what Margie Malloy is counting on.

As vice president and general manager of Office Archives, she needs a steady flow of paper to keep the warehouses full. So far, she has no worries.

"People are comfortable with paper," Malloy says. "So many folks tell me that when they receive an e-mail, they print it out. ... I was recently at a meeting with the folks from the National Archives [and] the federal government's form for storing e-mails at this point is to print them out. They are not unusual in that."

Security and access

The company's cavernous buildings are stacked with literally millions of white cartons with the Office Archives name and logo embossed on each in red and blue. They contain, among other things, mortgage documents, wills, medical records, building plans, blank payroll checks, original county documents, banking and insurance records, case files from law firms, historic federal papers and who knows what else.

Office Archives doesn't even know, unless a client chooses to divulge what it's storing.

Malloy's concern, though, is not the contents, but how what's stored is managed. Two things are vital: security and easy access.

While the two may seem incompatible, Office Archives guarantees both.

Security at the warehouses is so uncompromising that even Kane is barred from wandering inside.

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