Production: Deciding Between Profit and Design and Function

It’s no surprise to any of us that circulation of our daily papers is being challenged daily. While I personally feel things are bottoming out and the freefall is slowing, we continue with a downward trend. I feel we’re zeroing in on a stable core group of subscribers and there is light on the horizon. We need to continue to be diligent regarding expenses and produce products that not only continue to please our core readers, but also boost single copy sales.

Let’s face it, for the most part we continue to produce a quality product that readers and advertisers see value in and are willing to pay for as a result. In many areas we provide local community coverage, in-depth coverage, features and targeted special sections that many of our digital competitors can’t hold a candle to.

So let’s take a look into how we can maintain and/or continue that advantage without overextending our budgets.

Newsstand Appeal/Front Page News

It seems like for the last 20 years, I’ve heard publishers and circulation executives touting the necessity of photos above the fold. I wholly agree with the concept of a powerful bold headline and strong vibrant photos to provide eye appeal to single copy buyers. If you’re going to sell your goods, you need to market them and draw in readers, and that is exactly what a strong presence in the rack can do.

Can this approach help our newsstand sales? Absolutely. But I see many papers straying from this simple concept and I’m just not quite sure where things got off track. Take a look at five daily papers on the rack and I’ll wager that two or three of them have what I call a “split photo” on the front page: a photo folding over the front page and half or more hiding below the fold. That’s not very appealing.

Many of us have added skyboxes to our front pages to grab reader’s attention—and it works. But when you add skyboxes to a sometimes oversized masthead, that combination can take up over a third of the front page, allowing a much smaller area (vertically) for a bold headline and photo above the fold.

In the small space that remains, we cram a headline, which leaves about 2 inches of vertical space for a photo. We then place a large and attention-grabbing photo under the headline and split it over the fold, showing 2 inches of the photo above the fold.

This is a long explanation on how we’ve strayed from the “pop” of front page photos above the fold, and I believe mis-marketed our products on newsstands.

So what’s the fix? It depends on the publisher’s viewpoint and is accomplished through a redesign of the front page. How valuable are skyboxes to you? I love them, but are they worth splitting a front page photo over the fold or should you drop them? I say it depends on how you want to market your front page. Overgrown mastheads are next; they’re your brand, but also provide little value outside of that.

Overall, decide on how you want to market your front page for single copy/rack sales, and bring that headline and photo back above the fold to grab your audience and promote rack sales.

Unnecessary Expenses

I’m probably not going to make many new friends with this part of the article, but it’s a painful reality in today’s publishing business that just because it looks pretty and makes the designer or news person happy with their creation, color doesn’t always make good financial sense.

If there is value in running inside color, I’m all for it. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a news page that has a single small line or word that the newsroom sends as color. Production looks at this and the cost associated of it and the head scratching begins. If you’ve worked in production for more than a week, you know exactly what I’m talking about. What value is a single word on a page in dark blue going to add? Probably very little, but the expense it adds is far from none.

The newsroom typically has one primary goal, and it’s an admirable one—reporting the news and creating features that are relevant to our readers. We’d be nowhere without them; they are the core of our business. Doing this right draws in readers and advertisers and is how we remain in business.

In supporting roles, we in production tend to focus heavily on expenses. Not to say the newsroom isn’t expense conscious (I believe they are and that they are as concerned with the overall profitability of the franchise as any department), but I’m not so sure (here I go making new friends again) just how aware they are of the expense associated with color.

Plates, etc.: Depending on your platemaking process and requirements, vendor pricing, size, mil (thickness), etc. the cost of a single plate can easily exceed $4 to $5. In order to produce even a small spot of process color, in addition to the black plate, you’ll need plates for cyan, magenta and yellow. This is $15 of additional expense. While it may not sound like much, just one non-essential color position in the paper over a year can cost approximately $5,500 in plates. Add to this output time/labor on the front-end, press labor bending/locking-up plates and that one additional color position turns into a very expensive luxury.

Paper waste/start-up: Registering color on press start-up is not an easy task, and as that process is taking place, paper and dollars are going into the waste stream. After the point that your color is dialed in, you have to take into account that throughout a long run you’ll have roll changes. At any point of a speed change in your pressrun (i.e. to shoot a paster), you could have additional waste getting things back in registration.

Ink and chemistry: The ink and chemistry expense associated with additional color may not be significant and of course, depends on the coverage. Still, this is a very real cost that results from process color reproduction.

So now that I’ve circled the airport of details, let’s come in for a landing. If a small four-color graphic on page A3 sells papers, go for it. If it enhances readership and retains home delivery numbers, go for it. But if just makes you feel good and it’s not truly necessary or it has little or no return on investment, drop the color and save the money.

Paper Grades/Special Sections

We all print several special sections throughout the year. They tend to be money-makers in our advertising departments and also provide readers with hours of informative and useful information.

I’ve been part of many discussions about special sections. Normally these discussions revolve around advertising space, color availability, news hole, ad/news percentages and deadlines. One part of this R.O.I. evaluation that isn’t often discussed is paper grade; i.e. newsprint, hi-brite or offset.

What was promised to advertisers when the sale was made? Is a premium stock really necessary or just “nice to have?” Will readers get more out of it if it’s on premium paper? What do we want to present to readers? Is it truly a matter of expense? Where does expense perhaps take a back seat to producing a top quality product for our readers and advertisers? The questions are endless and I’m certainly not pushing for a decision one way or the other. Both sides have their expenses and both presentations have their strong points. At this stage, all I can do is present reality and leave the decisions to others.

We’ve all seen what paper prices have been doing over these past months and I’m not sure there is an immediate end in sight. For this reason alone, we have to start making some tough decisions when we market special sections. I’ve had many conversations with ad directors as to “what kind of stock was this sold on.” Usually that thought never came into play when the section was marketed to advertisers. It becomes a decision based on desire and not based on any review of the financial aspects of the section. Of course it looks better on hi-trite than newsprint. But does it really look that bad on newsprint? I think not. We just desire it on a premium paper. Does it help newsstand sales? Does it promote readership for home delivery? Is it going to help us to sell advertising next time we tee up a section like this? When all of these questions often aren’t asked, it simply ends up being a section printed on hi-brite. And if we really and truly review these sections, they’d work just as well on newsprint and provide additional margin to the bottom line.

Again, this can all be summarized as “make good educated decisions that impact our bottom line and create readership.” Don’t lead solely with the pretty factor. 

Color Comics/Preprint Jackets

First, let’s talk color comics. In my opinion, we’ve taken a lot away from readers in an effort to remain profitable and continue to support our local communities. If you don’t want your phone to ring off the hook with irate customers, do not mess with their comics, period.

From a production standpoint, here’s where I now speak out of both sides of my mouth. There are times that heavy more expensive stock makes operational sense.

Not too long ago I had a thick booklet that needed to be inserted into a newsprint jacket that was pre-furnished by a commercial customer. When we attempted to insert the booklet, it shot through the newsprint like a rock through tissue paper. We had to slow the inserting to a crawl and the end quality of the package wasn’t up to our standards.

We really need to evaluate the operational process when we make decisions about paper stock for a jacket. Too thin a jacket (wrap) can seriously compromise the end quality of the package. Newsprint is a lot cheaper on the front-end, but you need to look at the whole picture. When the jacket is too thin to support the insert load, the insert machine may need to be slowed down, hurting your net output and costing additional labor overtime. More importantly, the quality suffers, and we end up delivering a substandard final package to our customers.

I’ve referred to a positive R.O.I. several times. This is where smart decisions that affect your bottom line come in. Upgrading from newsprint to a heavier stock on jackets can net overall savings in your mailroom. Packages will move faster and operational costs will be reduced generally offsetting all of the additional paper cost.

The cost of printing a newspaper is high and going up by the day. It’s driven many smaller properties to consolidate or seek alternative print sites, and even shutting down their own printing operation all together. Review every expense, evaluate every need and make sure that when you spend money there is a positive return on investment—or at least make a good decision on why there shouldn’t be.

Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center, LLC in Lubbock, Texas. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at [email protected]

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