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The Road to Print Predictability

By FOLIO: Staff

The digital workflow is reshaping the magazine industry, but many of the tools available to publishers remain either unused (online insertion orders, virtual proofing, JDF files) or tweaked for each individual user to such a degree that they render proposed workflow standards (such as PDFX1a) all but irrelevant. The industry continues to struggle with issues such as color consistency, fonts, high res/low res, and logos inexplicably disappearing at a time when the technology exists to prevent those mistakes.

Nor is the industry as advanced as some like to think. "One of the ideas at the recent Spectrum conference was to have a computer take your faxes and make PDFs of your insertion orders," says Nan Gelhard, advertising manager at Summit Racing, and one of the perennial ad-side voices at IdeAlliance's Spectrum production conferences. "Isn't it telling that that's our idea of high tech? I'm still signing and faxing insertion orders. I want tools that automate that, and once I sign my contracts, I want to hand that off to accounting."

Folio: spoke with a number of industry figures including publishers, advertisers, printers and vendors about what the industry is doing to try to reach print predictability. Almost across the board, they agree that all participating in the supply chain need to change the process and correctly implement technology. "I think the industry is moving successfully to these kind of things," says Rich Zweiback, executive director of manufacturing at b-to-b publisher Lebhar-Friedman. "The tools are there, it's getting people to use them that's the challenge."

The Standards Dilemma

During a panel at the recent Spectrum show discussing file responsibility, Kin Wah Lam, director of digital development for Time Inc., said he does not experience any of the common problems associated with file management. "The technology to avoid them is out there," he said.

Other observers think the technology has improved to the point that the industry can eliminate proofs altogether. "Proofs are a crutch, throw them away," wrote influentiual production consultant Bo Sacks in a recent online post. "Quality control has been reduced to a logarithmic equation. You can take the subjective out of the press. It not only can be done, it already has been done. Wake up and move on to more important issues."

While most agree that the technology does exist, few think people are using it the right way. "It would be nice to be Time Inc.," says Zweiback. "Most of us are dealing with less experienced suppliers than they are. An ad in Sports Illustrated deals with a huge agency, a huge knowledge base, and many more hands touching it. Compare that to one of our ads where there's maybe several thousand dollars at stake and an in-house art person. The big boys have one way of handling this but I'm not sure if it works in the b-to-b world or at most other consumer publications."

However, one of the big boys is not so rosy about the production process either. "Proofs do not match files. That's the biggest problem in the industry," says Biagio Lubrano, quality control manager at Conde Nast. "If we could get a proof that is accurate every time that would be huge. There's a very professorial attitude out there that you just read the instructions and this is how it's supposed to happen but it doesn't work that way."

The problem is that many players are only paying lip service to following standards such as SWOP, and they do so because they don't really know better. "A machine can create a digital proof and be certified by SWOP but that only means they have the capability of producing a high resolution proof within SWOP standards," adds Lubrano. "That does not mean that every place that has one calibrates it correctly to those standards. A lot of these boutique shops do a terrible job calibrating these machines, it seems to be more in tune to what they like to see in the proof rather than doing it to a specific standard. We see this every month with our editorial product. When we open these things and generate the profile, it's not even close to what they asked for. Now it takes another three proofs to get back to what it's supposed to look like."

While vendors are introducing new solutions all the time, that doesn't address the question of proper settings. "It still comes down to how that machine is calibrated," Lubrano says. "What do we have to serve as a common denominator that everyone can compare this proof to and say, ムYes, this is done to the standard?' The industry is generating numbers and tables for these proofing machines. You've got ink jet, you've got dots. Even though numbers are applied within the SWOP TR001 standard, the results are going to be slightly different and ムslightly different' is more than enough to be a problem."

The rise in cheap Inkjet proofs is contributing to the loss of standards. "People got into Inkjet and said 'I'm SWOP-certified because I have this Epson printer and I have this driver,'" says Lee Edberg, central premedia manager at Brown Printing. "Okay, are you using the right lighting conditions? Are you using the right ink? Are you using the right paper stock? Are you calibrated? Have you calibrated in the last year? They say, 'Well no, all I had to do was get this machine and I'm SWOP-certified.' No, you have to do all these other things too and stay on top of it."

Most of the errors seen by Capps Digital, a premedia service provider within Publicis Group SA, are type, according to chief marketing officer Brent Moncrief. "We do not have problems with color, especially for publications," he says. "You need that diligence. If you're ISO-certified, that's great, but if you don't continually do the process check you'll turn out crap. People need to know what they're doing or they're dead in the water."

Lack of Communication

A big drawback is the lack of communication throughout the production supply chain, from advertiser to publisher to printer. "As a printer, many times we get the proof, look at the digital file and say, 'There's no way this file created that proof,'" says Edberg. "People upstream say they don't like the color, so they make changes to their proofing device to make it look the way they want it to. But the numbers in the file the printer sent don't match."

Contract proofs are quickly becoming a thing of the past, even though they are something publishers say is impossible to verify color finality without. "You're never really sure that just because a non-contract proof prints off a low res printer, that it will print correctly once it goes to a high quality press," says Zweiback. "There are too many elements in the file that can cause problems in the final print. If you're not going to get contract proofs, you establish parameters trying to absolve yourself in liability in your specs. If we don't get contract proofs, we can't be responsible for color fidelity or file accuracy."

And publishers, advertisers and printers still debate who needs which files and why. "The technology is better but inevitably we hear, 'You can send us the PDF X1a but we'd like the native file as well,'" says Moncrief. "If you change it, do I need to get the changed file back into my system? That rarely happens."

Summit Racing sets the responsibilities with its suppliers. "When I deal with my suppliers, we lay down the rules before we get started," says Gelhard. "You have this authority, not that authority."

And publishers that fix files without passing word onto their clients aren't doing them any favors. "Magazine print quality is better than it's ever been," says Gelhard. "They're changing their specs to take advantage of the technology but they're very slow to tell us. If I submit an ad that meets published specs, and two days before the drop-dead date I get a panicked phone call from the production people saying ムIt doesn't fit,' who's fault is that? It's the publisher's responsibility to clearly define the specs and then it's the advertiser's responsibility to meet them. That's what agencies are supposed to do, they're supposed to be a value add. That's why they've got the agency discount."

Gelhard is beta testing a digital insertion order system with one of her publishers and wants to see others offer it. However, she says the biggest short-term fix should be easy for any publisher. "Everybody is so busy managing contracts and insertion orders and proof of performance but the one that should be the no-brainer is the specific specifications for supplied materials," says Gelhard. "If you go to a publisher's Web site, it's not easy to find."

Moncrief says publishers need to keep their specs as current as possible and be upfront about errors, no matter who's fault it is. "A publisher may say, 'Yeah, yeah, we caught it and fixed it,' but that doesn't help us determine the root cause," he adds. "This is especially the case with smaller, specialty publishers."

Responsibility for Makegoods

Any discussion of file predictability leads to the inevitable issue of makegoods. "Makegoods related to production haven't changed, despite the change in technology," says Tom Fox, vice president of manufacturing and technology at American Express Publishing. "It is in an agency's interest to get a makegood so their client won't hold them accountable for the mistake, even if the mistake was theirs and not the publishers'."

Still, enlightened advertisers are willing to take on responsibility, as long as publishers tell them what went wrong. "I believe responsibility lies with the author," says Gelhard. "Primedia says they respond to the big offenders, not the occasional problem. If they don't call out an obvious error, it's their fault. If they fix but don't tell, it's their fault. If I bleed a photo off, is that a creative idea or a mistake? I don't think makegoods are happening because of color, they're happening because of content. It's the author's fault and you can't get past that, but I should get a call from a production person. Everybody's under time constraints so they're making it work but then who has the final file?"

Compressed cycle times are a problem throughout the production chain. "What's killing us are the media companies," says Moncrief. "They're trying to make the buy as late as they can to save their client money and they save so much that any increase in production costs is insignificant. They don't care what that does to us as far as quality control. As an industry, when we make errors, it's because we bypass the process because there's no time to get a set of eyes on it. From our side, the compressed cycle time is saving the client money on the media buy but it's increasing the chance of making an error and in other cases drives costs up because, boom;we never built an ad for that size. At same time, we as an industry have to keep focused on it so we're perceived as being more agile compared to the Internet and other media."


While it may be naive in practice, publishers should treat glitches as an educational opportunity for their clients. "Over the years, since the advent of CTP, our customer base has gotten more sophisticated," says Zweiback. "Things are improving continuously. However, given the realities of the advertising market and challenges in bringing in advertisers as well a retaining them, we're here for the customers. We'll work with them as much as possible. Luckily, we catch almost every mistake before we release the files to our publication printers. We try to educate advertisers as much as possible. Virtually all the time, they're more than willing to take the information we offer because it can only help. I can't remember the last time this was an adversarial situation. It seems like there's a lot less conflict now than when we were in film. Maybe it's because now the advertiser is often the creator and not going through film houses. They seem very willing to hear and learn from what we have to say."

Inching Towards Predictability

Most publishers are developing a hybrid strategy using PDF technology and their own best practices. "If I'm a pressman and there's an conflict or the file doesn't contain the amount of tone or color it needs when it gets on press, we do it with plates," says Lubrano. "We'll do it through Creo, we'll go in and sharpen that page, we'll do it with platemaking. This is where the technology gives us the flexibility to pinpoint specific areas that need to be improved. It's limited but way better than film."

Conde Nast has an approval process that is calibrated, and cross-referenced with every printing plant it works with. "The separation house we use can generate a proof, I'll give it to Donnelley or Quad Graphics and they pull a proof and it's supposed to look the same," says Lubrano. "And it does. Now we use Veris and Iris proofs and we also use the approval as a common denominator. When I pull a Veris, it will look very similar to print."

The technology can provide the right solution, as long as it is implemented properly. "Time Inc.'s position is absolutely correct but realize the words they use are 'should not exist.' That requires that the correct technology be correctly used so in any transition there is a practicality of human error as well as unanticipated technical glitches because there are many pieces to the puzzle," says Fox. "For example, as InDesign has so rapidly replaced Quark in pre-press, the process to create a PDF was simplified. However, an ad that was not run through a PDF distiller and checked using Pit Stop 6.0 allowed a hard-to-spot error to get through our process. Pit Stop 7.0 corrects this problem so 'shouldn't have a problem' depends on all points in the supply chain being on a common technology standard. With the pace of change, that's a challenge."

But it's a challenge the industry has to overcome. "Magazines have to," says Gelhard. "They can't afford not to with the cost of paper and postage going up and the number of subscribers going down. For them to be viable they have to solve these issues. He who fixes his production gets to be profitable."

By FOLIO: Staff

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