The Production ‘Traffic Cop’
Technology has made publishing more efficient. Why can we still not meet deadlines?
Everything today is digital. From photography and color-accurate proofs to bluelines and printing plates, technology has reduced production-related costs and time, significantly shortening the production cycle. Editors and designers now are outfitted with machines powerful enough to work with high-resolution images. LCD monitors can be calibrated accurately enough to reduce some of the color-proofing cycles. PDF workflow has significantly reduced issues of missing fonts and images. And for that rare corrupted image error, FTP file transfer has reduced delivery time from overnight to same hour.
So why, then, is it no easier to get the content creators (advertisers, photographers, editors) to “respect” the production deadlines?
Here at Boys’ Life and Scouting magazines, the improved technology was going to resolve what I believed was the problem: Advertising close dates were several days after editorial, and editorial could not finish the layout without knowing ad placement. But now, because editorial and design are working with high-resolution images, color correction is happening in the middle of the production cycle. This allows us to move editorial deadlines after ad closing—and closer to press start.
But the advertising department tells me our competitors are offering tighter ad-close deadlines. And since that’s where the money is, we moved those deadlines, too. So we’re back to the same problem, except now production has even less wiggle room—and we’re still getting materials late.
Are we still too fat on our time in production? We average nine working days between the “material to production” and “page files to the printer” deadlines for our two titles. (Boys’ Life is published monthly; Scouting is published six times a year. Both titles go to press at the same time, so we slightly stagger the close dates to avoid a bottleneck in production.)
Boys’ Life uses a modular style, so it is easier to manage. If a late ad comes in, we can usually drop a page of editorial. Scouting magazine takes in more partial-page ads and fills the well with editorial copy. So late ads require more design time to work them into the revised layout.
Our solution is the same low-tech solution it has always been. The production manager becomes traffic cop.
But is there something I’m missing? Is there some other way to shave days from the production schedule? At nine production days, are we really not competitive? I recently posed these questions to two of my colleagues, who shared their thoughts and experiences.
Private Clubs magazine
Why don’t people respect deadlines? I’ll leave that question for the psychologists and sociologists.
Technology does not increase “respect” for deadlines. In fact, technological advances have undermined respect for production. Many advertisers and editors now believe they can bypass production. “After all,” they say, “I know how to make a PDF.” Or, they believe technology has advanced to the point where everything can happen at the “last minute,” and wonder why we want materials in advance.
So, while production managers need technical knowledge (after all, we know the difference between PDF and PDF/X-1a), we also need the skills of an ambassador or mediator (or a good traffic cop). We need to earn respect by demonstrating respect for content creators, and we need to facilitate respect between editorial and advertising. Know their goals, and communicate clearly how we can help them.
Private Clubs is published six times a year, so we emphasize quality (and expense control) before speed. We’ve leveraged technology to tighten production schedules, but we intentionally move at a slower—and more careful—pace than a weekly periodical.
Last year, we moved our ad closing seven days closer to our printing date, a move much appreciated by our advertising department. When we made this move, I communicated how tighter ad-close deadlines limit flexibility, and we established clear guidelines for contingencies. We have a firm closing date for ad sales, and we paginate our magazine the next day. If warranted, we establish “contingency plans” for replacing one to two edit pages with ads, or vice versa. This frees our editors and designers to start “finishing” the issue. If we’re waiting on any late materials, we also schedule a later date to finalize pagination of full-page ads. As we get closer to our printing date, we eliminate and/or revise contingencies. I don’t hide the fact that we can make changes very late in the process, but I also honestly communicate the increased risk to quality and the potential cost involved.
For example: If we change this page by Tuesday, we’ll take it through our normal processes, and it will cost us only the expense of an extra proof. If we change this page on Wednesday, we’ll have to approve an online proof and so-and-so won’t get to see it because they’re on vacation. If we change this page on Thursday, we’ll have to pay for new plates to be made. If we change this page on Friday, we’ll have to track down all the trucks, buy some more paper, and print the whole thing again—but yes, it can be done.
As technology advances, we may be able to shave more days from the production schedule. But should we? Probably not. Haste makes waste, and your sales staff won’t be able to sell a mistake-prone publication—no matter how much “extra” time they have.
I agree very much with Eric’s points—especially about communicating honestly about capabilities and risks at given points in the process. I often equate magazine-production management with being a medical doctor. We can, and often do, quietly pull off miracles in which ads, not lives, are saved, but any intervention involving a “stressed” ad introduces risks, not the least of which is human error.
As Texas Monthly’s production director, I strive to be objective, accommodating and diplomatic in order to protect the integrity of the production process and its direct result, the printed book. I’ve attempted to educate myself about all of the inputs affecting the schedule, and commensurately, to educate others about why the physical fact of having to put ink on paper affects things upstream in their world. As Eric says so well, it’s hard to sell a mistake-prone magazine, so making sure our advertising sales staff understands basic production information is key—to that end, I recently [wrote and] distributed [a document called] “Production Information for Sellers” to the sales staff.
This brings us to the question of how much lead time is really necessary in order to be competitive. The answer, of course, is as little and as much lead time as is necessary to achieve the goals of the enterprise. A stressed publication that reads poorly and looks shoddy loses in a competitive marketplace, but so too does one that has stale information and ads ….
We can’t escape the fact that with limited staffs, we have to spread work out over a number of days—some advertisers don’t understand why we call them as late as a week after we receive their ads to tell them that there’s a problem. On the other hand, the art and editorial staffs will always want as much time as possible to ensure the integrity of our editorial product.
To deal with this tug of war, Texas Monthly has a series of deadlines throughout our production cycle. We have an earlier closing and due date for advertorial materials than for [run-of-book (ROB)] ones; this lets us design and build self-contained advertorial sections before we’ve even laid out the book. We close ROB ad space, and then dummy the issue a week to 10 days before we have to send files to press. At the end of our third week, we ship all full-page ads. Then, in our final week, we have two and sometimes three deadlines, so chunks of the remainder can be sent. We start printing even before the final deadline ….
I believe the answer to the ultimate question—how to send files to the printer as late as possible while still producing a quality magazine—comes down to a combination of culture, product, technology and distribution. If we demand the highest quality in our publication … the culture will support the expense such high quality exacts in both money and time. If we can save time because we’re using more automation, and therefore offer the advertising sales staff a later closing date, then we will, as it’s ultimately in our own best interest to do so. If our distribution requirements were to change, and we could print a day or two later, the allocation of that saved time would need to be discussed so it would serve the greater good of the entire organization.
Each month seems to present us with new, unforeseen challenges, especially when it comes to managing people and content against a strict deadline. Perhaps the real answer is that there is no answer except to captain the ship as best we can, understanding that everyone has to reach the same destination at the same time, but also that we have less control over what conditions we will face on that journey than we might think.