Digital production, embraced today by publishers and printers alike, now defines the trafficking, integration, and distribution of both advertising and editorial materials. Publishers receive ads via email, tap into their printer’s workflow to make changes on the fly, check and approve pages on Web-based proofing sites, and communicate with their printer online in real time. The printer, using computer-to-plate (CTP) technology, creates computer plates directly from the publisher’s files, saving both time and money and increasing productivity.

To accomplish digital workflow, publishers either create their own in-house prepress environment by purchasing the software themselves or download an application that allows their in-house production team to enter the printer’s portal via a Web address and connect to the workflow. The publisher uploads the file directly into the workflow and can then return to the site, view the file, and change or annotate it online. Other people can join in, in real time, from other remote locations. The file, however, never moves.

Incompatibilities represent the biggest challenge to publishers who set up their own PDF-generation process. The vast majority of publishers use PDF files as their computer-to-plate standard, but PDFs are complicated, glitch-ridden files with no fully universal standard – at least not yet. When the file is not set up to the printer’s standards, things can easily go awry. "Film was either right or wrong," says Cathy Underwood, production director at Hanley Wood. "PDFs can have gray areas, depending on how they are created." Publisher-printer communication, therefore, is key. The printer should always instruct the publisher on exactly how to create the file. Without good communication, CTP is hard to implement.

Four common glitches that make PDFs unusable – and how to avoid them when creating a PDF file
1. Corrupted fonts – always select the "embed-fonts" box
2. Drastic color changes in Acrobat – always change non-CMYK colors and RGB images to CMYK in your native files
3. Pixilated images – be sure images in your native files are 300 dpi or higher
4. Overprinted copy – be sure the overprint settings are "off" and use the overprint preview in Acrobat to catch any problems

Printers often require, as well, that files for different applications be prepped in different ways. At the moment, for example, PDFs for print cannot be used on the Web or for digital editions. Travis Daub, production director of Foreign Policy, looks forward to the day when a PDF can be created once and used for many applications. "I can see that in the next few years," he says.

One major advantage of using PDF files, however, is the ability to engage in remote, or soft, proofing. Many printers have advocated soft proofing for years, using it primarily to check for typos or image placement. But the unreliable color calibration of computer monitors – those belonging to the publisher as well as those within the printing shop – has caused a certain amount of hesitation. Final proofs are still sent by overnight mail in many cases. But acceptance of soft proofing is rapidly improving, as the cost of color-accurate CTP hardware decreases and the availability of enabling technology increases. The move to soft proofing, therefore, is no longer a technology decision; it’s a business decision. And it’s no longer a question of "if" soft proofing will become the norm; rather, it’s a matter of "when."

In the early stages of CTP workflow, any perceived timesavings were supplanted by the educational process that publishers went through-for themselves and by developing detailed file specs for advertisers to follow. For many, that has now leveled off – even for small, independent publishers. Cheryl Peters, production director at Time Out Chicago estimates that digital transferring and communication has compressed her production process from a three-day cycle into one. From the printer perspective, automated press functions are boosting overall productivity up to 35% by streamlining operations, increasing flexibility, and eliminating many of the manual steps associated with conventional printing.

While the move from film to a digital platform has opened up workflow and timing efficiencies, most production managers cannot trace a direct line to cost elimination. Yet some have exploited the digital workflow to open up opportunities for significant savings – most notably, through the elimination of physical materials and through digital asset management. Larger publishers, of course, have the leverage to push printers to adopt integrated workflow technologies and stand to save the most money. In terms of prepress line items, Hanley Wood’s Underwood says that they saved 15% simply by going digital. They realized an additional 15% by developing a proprietary database with their printer that provides one location for ad file storage.

According to Bob Sacks, president of Precision Media Group and a magazine production analyst, there will be no proofs in five years; e-paper will be the standard in the next decade. "Content is the true franchise," Sacks adds, "so why will the reader ultimately care how it’s distributed? " E-paper will be a sheet that’s foldable and downloadable. And how many people will be printing off their WiFi? Plenty of them."

Thinking Outside the Box in Editorial Management
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