Thirty years ago, magazine manufacturing was much more of a “whatever works” environment. Prepress suppliers were essentially doing everything their own way when it came to ads. Because no two suppliers did things the same way, the advertiser or agency would inevitably complain to the publisher that the magazine didn’t match proofs to their satisfaction;sometimes as much as 40 percent of the time. This would result in the publisher being forced to grant makegoods and run ads for free. It would also make the relationship between the advertiser and publisher more contentious than any publisher wants.
Enter SWOP, Specifications for Web Offset Publications
, a consortium made up of magazine production workers, ad agencies, printers and paper makers. Starting in the seventies, the SWOP guidelines created a standard for key aspects of manufacturing, making the process more efficient and cutting down on the disputes as well.
The consortium launched its first set of guidelines in 1975, pioneering the use of specifications and tolerances for printing. Among SWOP’s accomplishments in its 30 years are:
ﾕ Introducing the concept of gray balance;a method to try to determine what proportion of CMYK is required to produce a neutral gray;which is needed to help control proofing.
ﾕ The pioneering of measurement for dot gain, which is used to determine the tolerance of the printing process by statistical feedback.
ﾕ Addressing the emergence of the computer-to-plate production method for publication printers.
In 1986, the SWOP specifications included for the first time guidelines for Web publication printing. In 1993, the organization, anticipating the coming digital workflow, addressed specifications for electronic file preparation. In 1997 and 1998, SWOP issued specifications for the then emerging and now universal computer-to-plate process.
SWOP came out with its 10th edition in June. It looks at subjects, such as a formula altering of the aforementioned gray balance and specifying proofing paper to replace text web paper. Why so many SWOP editions over the years? Nubar Nakashian, chair of the SWOP Advisory Board, says it has both to do with the fact the first few editions were just general books, try-outs really, and that technology continues to evolve, creating a need for every edition that’s followed. “The industry constantly gives us feedback, which determines what you see in the next book,” Nakashian says. The first book was based on initial problems that hadn’t been dealt with: Using standard ink sets, proofing to specific densities, and more,” he says.
As for the latest booklet, how close does SWOP come to reaching its goal of being the magazine printing standard? Debbie Cassell, production director of Philadelphia Magazine, sees SWOP as a strong guideline that still needs to go further. “SWOP isn’t specific enough,” Cassell says. “For example, I have 38-pound number-five grade paper and 70-pound number-three that we use for the magazine. SWOP may tell me what the printing specifications are for number five paper, but it’s yet to also take into account poundage. The same ad that will reproduce well for a 70-pound can have poor ink coverage on a much lighter paper without the proper adjustments,” she says. Conversely, a problem can be a magazine’s inability to live up to the standards of SWOP. For instance, some work proofs require viewing conditions that only a specific room or light box can achieve. As one production manager confides, “While these specifications may easily fit into the budget of a Newsweek, a small industry publication just isn’t going to have that level of funding.”
But what does SWOP do well? Dave Brickey, production manager of St. Louis Magazine, finds SWOP vital to his daily production process. “We can get the numbers [based on SWOP specifications] where we want them;be it ink coverage or tones,” he says. “That makes my job a whole lot easier.” But more than anything, Brickey sees SWOP as a way to help his magazine save time and money. “Being able to set SWOP numbers for printing, I don’t have to see proofs anymore. In fact, Brickey estimates SWOP specifications save his magazine more than $40,000 annually.