By: Jim Rosenberg
In improving production quality and efficiency, analog and later digital electronics gave prepress operations an early lead over printing and packaging.
With the major advances accomplished in copy entry and editing, ad entry and layout, and pagination and platemaking, the principal remaining challenge in prepress appears to be integrating the capability of preparing content for output to nontraditional media, according to several newspaper technology and production veterans.
“There is no question that business will continue to go heavily in the electronic and data direction,” and certainly in classified advertising, says Eric Wolferman. With its impact on everything from plants to personnel, the industry will “have to get a lot more savvy about communications … about bandwidth,” says the Denver Newspaper Agency’s technology vice president.
“Prepress is virtually a misnomer now,” says North Jersey Media Group Technology Vice President Rick Ruffino, citing highly automated workflows. Content enters and moves smoothly through the group’s system, he adds, thanks to “our last wave of automation,” which includes a measure of self-correction in the form of OneVision’s Asura PDF software.
For content-management systems, St. Petersburg Times Tampa Publisher (and former operations director) Joe DeLuca foresees a move in the years ahead to a single production database holding all advertising and editorial material — text, graphics and images. The aim of putting it al in one place, according to DeLuca, is to enable everything to be pushed out to any print or electronic channel with little or no reformatting.
“I think we’ll be able to do it, technologically, before we can even sell it,” DeLuca says.
“We have to have ad-production people who have the capability of producing ads that work” for different outlets — newspaper, Web, cell phone (where, he says, address-specific delivery already is feasible), PDA, etc. With suitable supporting software, one artist would be able to produce an advertiser’s ad tailored for several media.
On the editorial side, DeLuca similarly anticipates a need for a central desk. Whether it evolves as a prepress or newsroom function, its purpose will be to push content to different media, an expansion of the role of the pagination desk or production editor.
Prepress to Premedia
As prepress evolves into a premedia environment, NAA-Ifra Technical Solutions President Owen Smith urges continuing examination of how news is consumed and a presence across multiple channels “in a way that the industry doesn’t go broke trying to do that.”
At once optimistic and pessimistic, Smith says that while trends should give newspapers confidence in continuing their Web efforts and in figuring how to price their services, the average paper is nevertheless “spending very little on Web operations” — not much more than five years ago.
Discouraging results of a Technical Solutions study of newspapers’ use of digital technology for print and the Web, says Smith, show a reluctance to invest in new Web technologies and no change in the ways that newspapers “deploy their resources” for the Web.
Smith also chides newspapers for their reluctance to provide readers with the news they want the way they want it — a shortcoming he says has been recognized since the 1980s and that competitors exploit through electronic channels. So far, news feeds to readers’ various electronic platforms, says Smith, are something Europe and parts of Asia “tend to adopt earlier.”
Furthermore, he says, readers, especially young ones, “are used to consuming information on a steady diet” throughout the day, rather than newspapers’ idea of single large morning or evening meals.
Operations implications for delivering the kinds of products and services Smith suggests go beyond DeLuca’s one-to-many ad- and news-production outlines. In the new world of new media, newspapers must be capable of feeding data to support “various third-party online relationships,” says Wolferman, citing his own operation’s relationship with cars.com.
That’s something newspapers never had to do in years past, when data was used in-house and output only for print use or management reporting.
Publishers’ problem, says Wolferman, will be that those third parties haven’t the know-how to deal with newspapers’ data. Newspapers often can handle the job, he says, but will struggle to meet their partners’ “unique demands,” and must remain flexible until a standard interchange is developed. Whether for content or commercial data, “at some point,” says Wolferman, newspapers and their partners “have got to standardize” their data communication.
Wolferman’s words about understanding and exploiting communications bandwidth may echo in operations supporting future electronic alternatives to ink-on-paper editions — ones that will not necessarily reduce or replace the content but will be able to simulate or duplicate the presentation of the traditional newspaper.
Both long-talked-about candidates require a viewing device: either a tablet — a light, thin, special-purpose receiver-computer-viewer — or some version of “radio paper” in which the newspaper itself is the device, one or more plastic sheets containing rewritable display technology and perhaps even the power source and radio receiver.
In the latter case, represented by efforts of Xerox spin-off Gyricon and MIT spin-off E-Ink, the publisher delivers only laid-out content; the subscriber owns the “paper” and chooses to “print” on it.
The technology exists now but is not ready for newspaper use, according to DeLuca, who says that “it depends on the cost and how easy it is to use.” He says. he can see it happening in 15 or more years, when “we’d be taking a lot of the cost out of the process” of making and delivering newspapers.
Rather than a durable sheet impregnated with “electronic ink,” Wolferman places his bet on a thin-panel device becoming a real-world product in the near future.
Ruffino sees a future for the tablet-type reader and self-imaging sheet — but not as newspaper-specific products. “We may just piggyback on some of those devices,” he says. He adds that only among a certain readership segment may use them for news, and that they will be no more a replacement for conventional print than were radio, television or the Internet. Calling such electronic vehicles for the printed word merely “another form that this information can take,” Ruffino thinks “there’s probably a third and fourth that we haven’t even thought of” that will emerge in the next 15 years.
But any migration from ink on paper to pixels on plastic will trade one delivery challenge for another. An electronically transmitted edition that needs no trucks or carriers has delivery issues of its own. Whereas inaccurate, wet, or late delivery will irritate subscribers to paper editions, lengthy or interrupted downloads will hurt prospects for electronic transmission. Time matters. So does convenience — one of the many advantages of paper editions.
To the extent that adequate bandwidth and wireless access can deal with those time and place issues, they’ll help make the new display technologies attractive alternatives to conventional printing and delivery.
Wireless will be a boon even for the hand-delivered ink-on-paper edition, according to consultant and former Gannett production executive Chuck Blevins. Web-enabled handheld devices, he says, will allow managers to inform carriers when copies are due to arrive at distribution centers. That may help make the hours before dawn a little easier for carriers, whose chief complaint after late delivery to the centers is inconsistent arrival time.
Similarly, Blevins foresees operations managers no longer needing to be at their office PCs or lugging laptops everywhere to keep on top of printing and packaging — relying instead on Blackberry or other wireless service and device.
“There are lots of technologies in the hopper that are emerging,” with uncertain application to newspapers, Wolferman says. Out of that hopper and available now, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) will be the basis for telephone service in the new Denver Newspaper Agency’s facility, according to Wolferman. Having matured rapidly in just the last few years, VoIP, he says, will enable the operation to much more easily “integrate computer technologies with telephony technologies.” E-mail and voice mail may be integrated, and personnel and their phone numbers can travel together.
That, he continues, can open up new marketing capabilities for advertising and circulation call rooms. Further, newspaper may find it costs less in the longer run, Wolferman says, because VoIP uses existing computer network cabling.
Investing in Staff
Certain longstanding concerns have received an extra jolt of urgency in recent years — security, energy conservation, disaster preparedness, with the last covering some aspects of the other two.
For personnel, plant, and products, “security is going to take over a larger part of the newspaper’s budget,” says Blevins. He speculates that concerns will range from malicious tampering (e.g., talcum powder on newspaper copies) to restricted sales (vending boxes going the way of subway trash cans) to subscriber suspicion (a carrier’s beat-up old car rolling slowly through certain neighborhoods at 5 am).
“It’s going to interfere with normal commerce,” and newspapers won’t be exempt, says Blevins. Somewhere in that future, however, he expects technology will be applied to the security needs of newspapers — where, after all, news, production, packaging, and distribution typically work late hours.
With operations already looking to gain efficiencies and contain consumables costs, will larger outlays on security further shrink any budget allocations for training?
An operations professional with substantial industry experience puts training on a list of items shorted by the bottom-line focus of publicly traded companies. Others include maintenance, materials quality, spare parts inventories, and meaningful pay and raises, where appropriate. Asking not to be identified, the veteran executive said papers that won’t commit time and money for on-the-job training will end up spending on new hires for the required know how — individuals who often cannot be found “unless you’re stealing [them] from a manufacturer.”
Smith sees training playing a necessary (but not necessarily guaranteed) part in a changing industry. With calls for quality and efficiency, along with installation of new systems and equipment that often incorporate new technologies, “we’re seeing increasing pressures for newspapers to have better-trained people,” Smith says. Response to that pressure, however, amounts to a lot of lip service and little investment, at least in the United States, he says. And most training that is done, he continues, is the sort that is “mandate by law,” usually for regulatory compliance. Anything else, says Smith, is usually “fairly superficial.”
Newsrooms may thirst for more training, but businesswide, they probably receive the best or most, according to Smith. On the operations side, he says, staffers need to become more flexible and versatile in their use of new technology. (He also recommends more training for sales staffers, for greater effectiveness in cross-media sales.)
In general, says Smith, production departments still need to make the shift to a digital from a mostly mechanical mindset. Two weeks of training on each newly installed piece of equipment won’t do, he says: “It’s piecemeal. There’s no strategic plan for how to develop the work force.”
Among bright spots, the Los Angeles Times, says its former print quality service director, Robin Shank, offered offset printing courses for new hires and for veteran staffers seeking refreshers. Currently LA Weekly production director, Shank says she also sees mid-size and larger newspapers “reimplementing apprentice programs.”
More or better technology is only a partial solution to the need for training. On the maintenance side, Shank notes, press manufacturers have been moving to board-level diagnostics and training. In a pressroom, anything from a circuit or control board up to an entire spray bar will be swapped out for a new unit, with the manufacturer then finding and fixing the problem at the component level.
On the operating side, Shank continues, implementing new technology to cope with a skills deficit “might not be good for us in the long run.” Newspapers, she says, “will automate where they can,” to control register or density, for example, but they will still need someone who understands what is happening. Until most systems are reliably self-correcting, staff will still need to understand and respond to readings and alerts.
Furthermore, owing to the number of variables and their possible combinations, as well as unexpected events, not every production problem can be taught. So, even for Shank — who insists that “we don’t do enough of it, but we have to do it” — the best training will be no substitute for experience, and automation may prove even less satisfactory, she says.
For an industry sorely in need of skilled maintenance personnel, says Shank, “we don’t do a good job of marketing” the operations side of the business to people who would do well there.
Picking up the argument, Gannett Production Vice President J. Austin Ryan sees the need to sell “young, smart people” on newspapers. “We as an industry have to quit thinking about our demise and start thinking about cultivating the next crop of managers and doers,” he says.
While seeing the need for training in operating and maintenance skills, Ryan also points out that “the thing that’s helped us is we’ve been able to reduce the number of people we need.”
A Local Web-Print Nexus
As much as new media call for digital systems know-how, they seem likely also to preserve the need for printing skills. Newspapers that nurtured Web sites with space, staff, money, equipment, and content may be seeing the beginning of an unexpected return on that investment.
Besides publishing to the Web, cell phones, PDAs, or electronic paper, “floating out there in the future as well,” says Wolferman, is reverse publishing — the flow of content from online operations into print publications. Most notable are new print publications arising from new Web sites.
In Denver, Wolferman points to reverse publishing in the Rocky Mountain News’ Yourhub.com. An online undertaking begun in conjunction with new weekly zoned print sections, it grew into “a community journalism exercise” featuring direct reader interaction and contributions to dozens of neighborhood Web sites.
The idea formed from the traditional notion of locally zoned sections, then evolved as an outgrowth of the paper’s Web site. The printed sections, now regular weekly parts of the paper, are fed content in part by the constantly updated neighborhood Web sites.
Also intensely local and relying in large part on readers’ contributions, Morris Communications’ new free tabloid, Bluffton (S.C.) Today, followed on the success of BlufftonToday.com, with its residents’ blogs and their story and photo contributions.
At home just south in Georgia, Morris secured its foothold in counties across the Savannah River six years ago when it acquired a group of South Carolina non-dailies and shoppers. Among them was a monthly in Bluffton. That town also would become the headquarters of McClatchy Newspapers’ “Lowcountry operations” — The Island Packet, primarily aimed at Hilton Head Island, and The Beaufort Gazette, a few miles north. Competing with Bluffton Today is the ?Bluffton Packet,’ one of a few local editions of the Island Packet. Both emphasize and link to readers’ blogs.
Morris’ 55,000-circulation regional Savannah Morning News already offered an edition for its numerous subscribers in South Carolina’s two southernmost counties. But thanks to the company’s investment in a new approach to new electronic media and to McClatchy’s investment in a new site for a new printing and packaging plant, the 1,275 residents of Bluffton enjoy something that disappeared years ago from many cities 200 times its size — competing daily newspapers.
“The technology today makes all of that possible,” Wolferman says of the sort of business change that reverse publishing can bring about. Printed newspapers won’t disappear, he says. Rather, as reverse publishing suggests, they will merely “become more intertwined” with electronic products and services.
Looking 15 years out, however, Wolferman — who started in the newsroom and later spent several years as the Newspaper Association of America’s senior vice president of technology — says he wonders how much will be invested and in what.
“Certainly the front end has to be flexible enough to turn out [content] in any fashion that you can imagine,” he says, while print “may not play as dominant a role as it has in the past.” In any event, he concludes, continuing investment in front-end and back-shop production technologies will be required, but in proportion to “the role [each plays] in your overall business.”