Consistency Is King

By: Jim Rosenberg

Imagine printing a multisection broadsheet daily on different single- and doublewide presses (new and old, from four manufacturers) at 17 plants in 14 states and owned by 10 newspaper companies. Now try multiple versions on 40 presses of various kinds in various owners’ 37 plants. Yet, in both cases — domestic printing of The New York Times national edition and USA Today, respectively — press runs are on time and reproduction is consistently first-rate. Both dailies have done it for more than 20 years. Their uniform quality in all markets is attributable to, among other things, local expertise, overall systematic approaches, and ceaseless checking.

Judging from print-site and corporate managers’ comments, the papers seem to differ most in the extent to which they seek to define local practice. Whereas USA Today prescribes procedures, the Times is more inclined to specify standards.

Of course, both have quality standards, and the Times does have operating procedures — including press maintenance, roll-up, ink settings, and checks ranging from registration to blanket and paper flaws to dampener nozzles. But print sites have leeway in how they achieve the desired quality, according to production chiefs who spoke with E&P. (The Times declined to comment for this story.)

“If you do your job, you don’t have much contact” with the Times, says a print-site manager. “They have high expectations of quality, [but] provide the support necessary,” says another.

They have their standards, and it’s up to us to meet those standards,” says Tom McMahon, pressroom manager at Copley Press Inc.’s Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., where a 35-year-old Goss Metro prints 50,000 copies. “We try to keep it in good condition,” he says. It first printed the Times in August 1982, when Gannett Co. Inc.’s USA Today was a baby.

Back then, USA Today was a new kind of daily that was sold everywhere; the Times was the same Gray Lady printed at a few plants for a few big markets. In the years since, other dailies transmitted pages for output at either commercial printers (The Christian Science Monitor) or company-owned plants (The Wall Street Journal). In contrast, USA Today and the Times print at both company and commercial sites.

All kinds of iron

One of the first contract sites erected the first Goss Colorliner, designed to meet the demands of USA Today. In fact, that Army Times plant in Springfield, Va., was among the first to print both USA Today and The New York Times. Now, as Gannett-owned Springfield Offset, it continues to print the Times. And The Arizona Republic still prints the Times two years after Gannett acquired the Phoenix daily, while Gannett-owned Phoenix Offset prints USA Today.

Just weeks ago, Republic Production Vice President Bob Kotwasinski also took charge of Phoenix Offset. Goss Metros and Colorliners in two plants print the Republic (500,000 copies, 600,000 Sundays), while Phoenix Offset’s singlewide, two-around Goss Urbanite prints USA Today (up to 90,000 copies). The Republic‘s singlewide, one-around Goss Universal 45, with its own crew, prints 15,000-plus Times copies (all are winter figures). The Universal was bought to print the Times‘ wider pages when the big presses went to 50-inch webs.

For the Times‘ pages and color, the Tribune Publishing Co. needed more than the two singlewides serving its 150 customers. So the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune parent entered into a “partnership plan” with the Times, buying a Universal 45. The Tribune began turning out the Times after a week of testing and was named among the top Times print sites a month later. Much like arrangements with other singlewide sites, its long-term contract amounts to a guarantee of business “as long as you meet [Times] quality … and deadline requirements,” says Ron Cartledge, Tribune Publishing’s print director.

When the Times first looked to Denver years ago, “we just couldn’t fit it in,” recalls Frank Dixon, production vice president at the Denver Newspaper Agency (DNA). The next time the Times came to town, the locals suggested they make deadline by printing on a singlewide and assembling sections on an inserter. They installed a Heidelberg Mercury in 1999, and “everything we put on it looks great,” says Dixon. Singlewides elsewhere followed.

A sample of Times printers shows their diversity: Freedom Communications Inc.’s The Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C., and Advance Publications’ The Ann Arbor (Mich.) News (Goss Magnums); Cox Enterprises Inc.’s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TKS); Cox’s Austin (Texas) American-Statesman (Goss Metroliners, KBA towers); the Seattle Times Co.’s Rotary Offset Press subsidiary (KBA Continent); the Tribune Co.’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, and the New York Times Co.’s The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. (Colorliners).

Gannett sites for USA Today, meanwhile, run assorted Goss gear and MAN Roland singlewides, with a one-around doublewide Regioman coming to The Honolulu Advertiser (a likely future site). Other print sites include North Jersey Media Group Inc.’s Rockaway, N.J. plant (USA Today‘s only straight runs, on a Mitsubishi press). Probably the oldest iron is the Marin Independent Journal‘s Hoe Lithomatic II in Novato, Calif. It and the San Bernardino County Sun Headliners together run at least 210,000 copies.

The Times, too, is big in California. Its Sunday advance sections make her operation the biggest West Coast Times printer, says Eileen Hammond-Cuff, production director at Knight Ridder’s Contra Costa County plants. After 14 years in Walnut Creek, the Times‘ color needs led it to Concord’s Colorliners in 1998.

In most areas, Times print sites run only 12,000 or 15,000 copies. Rotary Offset produces 28,000 daily, 36,000 Sunday.

At 22 Gannett and 15 non-Gannett sites, USA Today press runs range from 42,000 to 150,000 copies, according to John Yates, its production operations director.

The ‘USA Today’ way

Considering what it takes to do a good job on one press, how does prepress create pages daily for each of many plants’ different presses? The short answer: it doesn’t.

“In our [color] separation process, we aren’t targeting any one of those presses,” says Yates. Instead, prepress aims for the “middle of the road,” asking local managers to adjust as needed. Yates calls it something of a “hybrid” of averaging and tailoring. The first succeeds because much measuring keeps all sites’ equipment operating within an acceptable range. The second works because it is on-site and minimal.

Raster image processors (RIPs), which convert page data into files used to directly image film or plates, were not considered for the sites. Differences among RIPs cause font and other problems. Instead, the paper’s RIP farm in Tysons Corner, Va., is the last stop for pages in electronic form before they are checked on screen for completion and organized and uploaded by production-management software for satellite distribution. By controlling all RIPs, USA Today ensures all sites get all pages as intended.

To assess printing and check output devices, every site uses a densitometer calibrated to the headquarters reference value. With sites “required to achieve a certain ink density on primaries,” says Yates, density readings are fed to SeeColor Corp.’s ColorLoop application, which makes any necessary adjustment to the proofing software. “That’s what produces the same results across all the proofers,” he notes.

“On a weekly basis, every site is required to send us a standard USA Today test page off the proofers.” says Yates. All are compared with an original master proof to see that systems in the field match the master proofer at HQ. Immediate action is taken to correct out-of-tolerance proofs. Thanks to controls now in place, says Yates, “We haven’t brought a bad proof to the meeting in over a year.” Last year, the sites installed a new SeeColor version that will not print proofs until calibration has been performed.

USA Today advertising people submit page layouts with ad, page-count, and color-position information to HQ, where they enter a ProImage NewsWay production-management system that creates a plan assigning certain ads to certain sites. The plan, editorial material, and appropriate ads are transmitted to all sites. Each records pages meant only for it and those common to all sites, and automatically confirms every data bit via frame-relay landline connection back to HQ (which monitors site status and automatically resends missed data). Because all sites’ PCs are network nodes, Yates says, sites communicate by writing into that reply channel’s universally viewed chat window.

Though NewsWay largely manages itself (stitching elements, RIPping pages, assigning and sending plans and content), “there’s no substitute for eyeballs.” Yates says. “With 37 properties, it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to have something happening on any night,” he says. So at least two people are ready to field calls “as a first line of defense” against system or platesetter problems.

Proofing for completeness and as a guide for press crews is standardized on SeeColor software, Hewlett-Packard 1050C printers, and paper that mimics printed pages better than real newsprint, which absorbs proofing dyes, according to Yates.

Besides good prepress files and process consistency, “the key is standardization,” says Phoenix’s Kotwasinski, who admits he’s “just learning about producing USA Today” and lucky to inherit a good 19-year-old operation.

With USA Today converting to computer-to-plate (CTP) three years ago, “the proof will be printed well ahead of the plate,” says Yates. That allows staff to check proofs and the system to process whatever page is to be paired with the one already proofed. The automated system generates a proof upon a page’s arrival, but withholds that page from the platesetter until its mate arrives.

USA Today has supplied its site with pairs of either 50-plate-per-hour internal-drum Barco (Gerber) Crescent News or 100-pph flatbed Agfa (Strobbe) Polaris platesetters. It keeps detailed specifications for all consumables, authorizes shop standards, monitors ink and newsprint, and specifies test devices.

As for production differences, Kotwasinski says Times and USA Today ink-density standards and color volumes may vary. Republic plants use one ink supplier and Phoenix Offset another. The Times does not specify a supplier; USA Today allows both.

‘Times’ up front about quality

All the dailies Kotwasinski oversees use the same proofers. “While proofs are helpful,” he says, “we prefer to use densitometers to achieve accurate ink settings.” Production-management systems vary. Phoenix receives Times pages via satellite in a Scitex imaging system, with a Parascan system presetting inks and pairing pages. In Columbia, pages arriving over T1 lines enter an EskoNet system, where they are paired and passed to a platesetter. A daily imposition and color-position map is sent over the Net.

The Times lists consumables that sites use, but only for pricing purposes. “They give you the latitude to specify what you use. They want you to be comfortable,” says Columbia’s Cartledge. And it does not “supply us with a three-ring binder” of procedures, says Kotwasinski. “They’re not as structured as USA Today.” But the results, he says, “show you that both systems work” in targeting high quality and low waste.

Unlike USA Today, only five Times sites use CTP: three with Autologic 3850 and two with Purup-Eskofot platesetters. The difference matters. Seattle’s Rotary Offset and Tribune Publishing use Purup-Eskofot imagers’ higher available resolution for some commercial jobs. For the Times and Daily Tribune, the 3850 “would have been perfectly sufficient,” Cartledge says. “We run panorama plates on everything,” he says. But the Times occasionally sent paired pages at different resolutions — not always a problem for single-page plates, but impossible for two-page panoramas. “They finally got that resolved last year,” says Cartledge. Sites exposing plates from film can use 3850 Wide and Scitex Dolev imagesetters.

Last year, Rotary Offset seemed as lucky as Tribune Publishing. Printing the Times “went fairly smoothly” on its new KBA Continent, says General Manager Ken Hatch, who found the Times cared most that its new site follow standard operating procedures “to enable us to meet their printing [quality] requirements.”

The Times supplies quality guidelines, but “they do not tell us what to use,” says Bart Bockman, plant manager of DNA’s Commercial and Preprint Division. Retired Times executive Jerry McCauley and his national-edition team made it clear that they sought strong relationships, Bockman recalls, but did not want “to run the shop.”

In planning, file delivery, measurement, calibration, quality checks, and proofing, Times practices resemble USA Today‘s. “Everybody’s receiving the same quality up front,” Kotwasinski says, echoing counterparts’ comments and crediting constant monitoring for consistency in print quality.

Prepress gets a monthly snapshot of all sites when it prints and submits a Graphic Arts Technical Foundation test target. Also, three hours before each day’s press run, it outputs a test page to check the connection and quality. Contra Costa’s Hammond-Cuff says the procedure takes about 30 minutes.

Constant evaluation

On the sensitive subjects of people and paper waste, most sources concede some connection to quality, though not always as imagined. Some operations are unionized, some aren’t, and some have it both ways. But in many cases, it is commercial shops’ business (even physical) separation from newspapers that matters — not to mention their often newer, better equipment.

Cartledge views Tribune Publishing as “a daily newspaper with a huge investment in commercial printing,” where reliance on contract work promotes attention to quality. It doesn’t hurt business, he adds, “to be able to say you print The New York Times.”

Some crews’ low turnover facilitates consistency and motivation through recognition, says one Times site manager. As for waste copies, says another site manager, “they just don’t want anything out that doesn’t look great.” Though most regard the Times as generous about waste, some who recall USA Today‘s launch point to its own tolerance until its process was under control. In any case, even an expected number of start-up waste copies looks like a high percentage of a short run. Also, heavy color use and setting the quality bar high can push waste to levels intolerable at most dailies.

Both papers continually inspect what all sites print. Each day, “we look at every color printed page,” USA Today‘s Yates says. “In 2000, the quality lab … evaluated 188,781 tear sheets” — from “mystery subscribers” to ensure true sampling. A color page is scored for trolley marks, hickeys and other blemishes, color registration, and visual comparison to a proof. A randomly selected black-only page also is vetted daily for density and mechanical defects. Assessing and informing print sites, he says, “really closes the loop on the whole process.” Just as at Times sites, USA Today printers submit daily production reports.

USA Today has created an awards program for printers’ improvements. And Yates says it will resume sharing with all sites their periodic ranking by evaluation — a practice suspended to allow each to measure progress against its own record.

Once a week, the Times asks sites to submit copies. Sites never know what day or days until asked. A group in the graphic-arts program at the City University of New York evaluates the copies each month to recognize printers in several areas, bestowing quarterly “Golden Apples” for improvement.

Denver, for example, won “Perfect Page” and “Perfect Paper” recognition in 2000, then came back last year with what may have been the highest improvement score ever achieved. A newer site, Rotary Offset, took the No. 4 spot in its first year. Phoenix finished in first place among doublewides in 2000 and thereafter garnered Golden Apples for singlewide.

The Times brings plant managers to what one calls “a solid week of training and meetings” two or three times a year, always at print sites and always including information sharing among sites. Also, “New York is very good about alerting the sites [to] ad campaigns in advance” and passing along praise from advertisers, Kotwasinski says.

Learning and morale both improve with work for the Times, says one manager. “The next thing you know, their [own] paper’s quality comes up.”
In the end, says Denver’s Bockman, after the paper’s expectations are clear, after local managers have supplied training and cultivated a positive environment, “once we all go home, all quality is left completely in the hands of … the crews.”

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