By Eric Butterman
Five years ago, the sight of a Federal Express truck brought relief to many publishers’ eyes. The likelihood was you were signing for the hard proofs of the upcoming issue and had been waiting desperately to catch any mistakes before it was too late. That was the world of the film production process. Today, most publishers are opening up e-mails, or checking pages on Web-based proofing sites instead of opening packages, thanks to PDF workflows. But the question is: Are they getting a better process or just a different set of problems?
With the film process, which went by the wayside several years ago, design and production staffers created a desktop file and a machine produced film, which was used to create plates. You’d then put the sheet of film on top of a plate and shoot light through it, using the exposure of that plate to develop it into a printing plate. The plate was then etched with an image on the film. Sound time-consuming? It was. Today, the computer-to-plate process, usually using PDFs, involves making plates based on the computer file, working almost like a laser printer;but instead of paper, it prints computer plates. Sound faster? It is. However, it’s not necessarily less expensive and, more importantly, if you don’t have people trained to generate PDF files from every side, it’s hard to create and implement.
Highly Complex Process
For example, PDFs are highly complicated files. They come in many different flavors;there is no fully universal standard, although IdeAlliance, the trade association for prepress technology users, is trying to get the industry to adopt one (Time Inc., often a leader in prepress, uses the closest thing to a standard;PDF/X-1a .) What’s more, printers often require that files be prepped in different ways. And the files themselves are glitch-ridden. A production or design staffer can spend hours trying to figure out apparent incompatibilities between versions of Mac operating systems, or page-design software, or Photoshop and much more.
Typically, a Quark file needs to be “flattened,” in conversion to a PDF, meaning that the components;type, images, colors, are distilled into a single file. Images need to be high-resolution;at least 1.5 times line screen;for publication quality.
The X-1a standard is an attempt to resolve many of these challenges. It identifies that a PDF file has achieved a certain standard;that all fonts and images are embedded (all colors are CMYK , none are RGB , the page settings are correct, and more.) The problem is X-1a isn’t foolproof;people still accidentally get around the X-1a certification in their files, corrupting them. Says one production manager who didn’t want his name used, “I had a recent issue where advertisers give me a 100 percent X-1a compliant file, but when it went to press check I noticed images that weren’t specific. That created muddy colors. This all happened because the advertiser fooled their software into believing it was compliant, when it wasn’t.”
Travis Daub, production director of Foreign Policy , has seen his magazine through both film and PDF, and has spent a great deal of time correcting bad PDF files. “One of the big problems publishers have is they only consider how quickly they can produce PDFs,” he says, “but they forget that it’s not just their content that’s on the pages, but their advertisers’. If your advertisers aren’t trained in proper PDF production, you’ll have to train them or spend valuable staff time correcting their errors. That may not be saving you the kind of money you thought.”
Incompatibilities may be the biggest challenge. Bob Sacks, president of Precision Media Group and a magazine production analyst, says, “If you set up a PDF generation process, the printer should instruct you on exactly how to create the file. When the file is not set up to printer standards then things can easily go awry. Publisher-printer communication is key and it’s not always there.” Foreign Policy ‘s Daub has also found problems with getting PDF documents to be compatible for ads. “Many advertisers want to make PDFs, but a lot of their software is designed for the Web, and not printing,” he says. “The mistakes this can cause range from too low a resolution in files to getting sent RGB colors (red, green, blue) when you need CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black).” This can be fixed by going back to beginning of the design process and changing all elements in a file one by one to make them CMYK.
Another major issue, Daub says, has been the switch to InDesign from Quark . With InDesign rapidly gaining marketshare, colors and fonts and basic program functions that work in one version might not if you’re using the other. “In that situation, I can be left with colors going to pure black and fonts changing to what they’re not supposed to,” Daub says. “In each instance, it requires us to go back to the advertiser and walk them through step by step to correct it. PDF files do save time in theory, but here’s another example of them wasting time.”
One PDF advantage that seems to stand out is soft proofing, says Sacks. “Because of the X-1a standard,” he says, “it made soft proofing not just a possibility, but the smart route. It’s eliminated waste in our paper process, and we can clear pages a lot faster because we’re not waiting for things to be sent.” Landry notes that color reproduction with soft proofing is also an advantage if you have the right mindset: “Years ago,” he says, “we had only a few choices: crest proofs and color keys on acetate. Now we have a reasonable facsimile that says we no longer have to call our business ﾑreproduction.'”
Despite heavily utilizing PDF workflows in getting her issues out, Denise Philibert, production manager of Los Angeles , has decided to keep soft proofing out of the process. “Monitors don’t always match up in calibration,” she says, “so we still feel hard proofs are the way to go for accuracy.” Dave Steinhardt, CEO of IdeAlliance , agrees that calibration is a problem and also feels that soft-proofing can benefit from many global standards. “Whether it’s calibration or creating international color specifications, magazines have to start to adhere to certain common guidelines or we’ll be lost in this technology instead of taking advantage of it.”
There’s Always An Alternative
Although the vast majority of magazines use PDFs as their computer-to-plate standard, there are some magazines that have found other ways to accomplish digital production. In fact, Lesley Johnson, production manager of American Media’s Woodland Hills, California-based Muscle & Fitness, believes the PDF process created a time crunch for her “image-heavy” magazine.
“The vendor we had introduced us to PDF workflows,” Johnson says. “But we found it required us to have every image ready up front to be shipped into composed files. We knew from past experience that we’d still need to be scanning past the PDF cutoff date. It was either lose the quality of the magazine or find something else.”
Muscle & Fitness ships prepress files in Quark and after Johnson gets the color proofs to review, if she wants to make corrections, she simply deals with Quark files on the printer’s server. Once the pages are approved, the final plates are made. “I know it sounds like a lot more steps than PDF,” she says, “but we’ve found it to flow very quickly.”
Chicago Magazine also has gone another route, both utilizing DCS-2 files and having its pre-press facility onsite. “We can just look over Epson digital proofs and know our delivery time will be low with pre-press in-house,” says Vickie Bales, the production director for Chicago .
Their decision to stay away from PDF Workflow, Bales admits, also came down to having only two designers and some tough budgeting choices.
“With computer upgrades, a magazine has to make a decision of where to invest money,” she says. “I’d personally rather have better computers and software than the few advantages of PDF workflows at this time.”
The cost issue, however, may actually be where Chicago and Muscle & Fitness differ. Johnson says PDF workflows are being used to make her magazine money, but in the case of advertising pages, not journalistic content.
“Because we have an early on-sale date, advertisers come in very late in the process,” says Johnson. “When they’re paying us $30,000 a page, you don’t want to turn away that kind of revenue. If they FTP me a PDF of their ad at the last minute, I can plate it in an hour.”
Another advantage Johnson points out is that some of her advertising clients don’t even use agencies, so the sophistication of their ads may be low. That enables the publishers to play a full-service role.
“They’ll look to us to help them get their ads where they want them to be,” she says, “and that can take a few times back and forth in the creative process. With PDF workflows, we have that time.”
More savings are possible through the printer. In the age of film, printers used much larger staffs for file preparation. Now work for a magazine can require as few as two or three.
Jim Landry, production director of Science , says that led to a re-negotiation of rates. “We didn’t negotiate down the printer’s price in the millions, he says. “But well into the thousands was pretty easy for us to justify with how much they were saving.”
PDF: Predicting the Digital Future
Few could have guessed that the long tradition of film production would so quickly fall by the wayside. So, what does the future hold for PDFs? Sacks says in five years there will be no proofs and that e-paper will be the standard in the next decade.
“Content is the true franchise, so why will the reader ultimately care how it’s distributed?” Sacks says. “E-paper will be a sheet that’s foldable and downloadable. And how many people will be printing off their WiFi? Plenty of them.”
Though Daub won’t go that far, he does think PDFs will be created to do multiple things. “Right now, PDFs for print can’t be used on the Web and print can’t be used for our digital edition,” Daub says. “I look forward to the day where I can create a PDF one time and use it for many applications. I can see that in the next few years.”
Landry, however, sees the future as now, finding PDFs providing him countless solutions and few problems. In fact, it’s only the past that scares him. “During the film days, I remember being awakened by the printer at 3 a.m. saying the pages won’t image, the font isn’t embedded and the color space is wrong,” says Landry. “Say what you will about PDFs, but at least now I can sleep at night.”