Operational and production changes have proven profitable for the staff of Texas Parks & Wildlife.
Publicized as "57 years young," Texas Parks & Wildlife (TP&W) is a monthly magazine with both a strong heritage and a strong future.
As a regional publication with a paid circulation of 143,000, the magazine has relied on the support of the state agency that shares its name. In 1994, however, the publication's business model endured some operational modifications, and the magazine became charged with the task of not only supporting itself financially but to turn a profit—a unique situation according to the publisher who notes that only two U.S.-state-supported natural resource magazines strive to operate without public funding.
In 1998, when Editor and Publisher Susan Ebert took the magazine's helm, she brought to the table a wealth of publishing experience gained from previous production, editorial and design positions with City Magazines, Texas Monthly, Rodale Press and American Way. Upon accepting her current title with TP&W, Ebert tackled the position's challenges with great determination.
During the course of her first year, TP&W's newsstand sales skyrocketed by more than 27 percent, with a subscription-base increase of 10 percent. According to Ebert, the measurable growth correlates with a redesign, as well as a greater attention to marketing.
"We redesigned the covers to be more newsstand friendly. … Specifically, we looked to add more 'zing' to our cover lines. … We also began to do comprehensive direct mail campaigns and tried some new lists from publications that had some overlapping content, from Western Horseman … to Backpacker.
"According to our studies, we found that our readers spend about two hours with an issue, so we strive to organize it in a way that it is easier for them to find what they're looking for," Ebert explains.
"As our ad base is growing, we insist on keeping a strong eye for maintaining a clean and readable magazine; we always keep our readers in mind. For example, we try to group the smaller, fractional ads together, usually in the marketplace section," Ebert concludes.
Practical editorial, including "how-to" articles, combined with controlled advertising (Texas Parks & Wildlife sticks to a 25/75 ad-edit ratio), is an award-winning recipe for the publisher. The International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA) named the publication the "1999 Magazine of the Year," in addition to honoring its staff with awards for art direction and editorial quality.
"What I've come to understand about our readers is that they want the publication to be strongly skewed editorially. For that reason, I have fought strongly to maintain our ad ratio. We will never (exceed) 25 percent in advertising. The agency is very supportive of that, and from the feedback I hear from our readers, they're supportive of that decision, as well," Ebert explains.
Besides the design and circulation changes, Ebert was also instrumental in modifying production and manufacturing. Prior to 1998, the publication's creative and production duties were outsourced to a Texas-based creative agency. Ebert saw several flaws in outsourcing these tasks and considered in-house production.
"I was able to see two benefits (to bringing creation and production in-house)," Ebert explains. "We would have far greater creative control and the ability to truly meld the creative and editorial together. … The other benefit was cost. By bringing production in-house, we actually reduced our costs."
With change came capital expenditure considerations. Ebert purchased several Mac G3 workstations, which, she says, was a relatively insignificant purchase compared to other overhead concerns such as additional salaries, employee benefits and additional office space.
Because the publication operates within the state agency, the number of full-time employees is restricted. The staff, including Ebert, consists of less than a handful of members: Managing Editor Mary-Love Bigony, Circulation Director Susanne Harm, Art Director Mark Mahorsky, Photo Editor William Vincent Reaves and Senior Editor Dick Reavis complete the masthead.
Notably, one core (often considered essential) member of a magazine's staff is missing from the list—a production director. As Ebert points out, a dedicated production person is a luxury not easily afforded under the employment guidelines of the state agency. Still, someone must be responsible for trafficking ads, for monitoring editorial page production—all those vital responsibilities handled by a production manager. In the case of TP&W, production is a duty shared equally.
Ebert describes the relationship: "The managing editor is the one who puts together the production schedules. She provides the printer (Publishers Press, Shepherdsville, KY) with what they need; she gives prepress (American Color, Dallas) what they need. At ad close, I dummy up the book … and pass it along to the managing editor. She'll communicate with prepress and the printer from that point forward."
In the meantime, Mark Mahorsky begins to design pages using the standard suite of applications: QuarkXPress and Adobe's Illustrator and Photoshop. Images, supplied by highly regarded freelancers, become the charge of William Vincent Reaves.
Deidre Gonzales-Acord, the American Color account executive responsible for the TP&W account, notes that high-quality photographic reproduction is mandatory: "The photography itself is from world-renowned photographers; therefore, it is a requirement that the color always meet with the highest standard of color separation."
During page compilation, American Color provides the publisher with low-res images for QuarkXPress placement. "This allows Mark Marhosky, the art director, to lay out the main stories. … This also allows (us) to view layouts … and make any necessary changes before final pages are approved," Gonzales-Acord notes.
"All production information," she adds, "is noted on the color lasers. I also meet with the advertising team, to make sure we have all the ads. … Most of this is done a few days before final pages. … We then (begin) the final page-building. If necessary, (we) digitize the ads using our Creo Renaissance II scanner. We impose the files, output eight-up film, (run) Matchprint proofs, and make blueline proofs to send back to the customer for approval or changes."
On occasion, Ebert notes, one of the publication's staff members will travel to Kentucky for a press check, but, she adds, her confidence in the printer's ability allows her to restrict those visits to once or twice a year, usually planned concurrently with the printer's installation of new equipment.
The dollars and sense of customer service
Having Gonzales-Acord on-site during production is just one example Ebert provides with regard to the prepress provider's willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Depending on environment, past protocol and corporate mandates, many magazine publishers occasionally find themselves shopping for vendors on price alone. This was not the case for TP&W, according to Ebert, who values first-class customer service as much as competitive pricing.
"When you're out shopping for vendors, you have to keep foremost in your mind the organic makeup of your staff and your organization," Ebert remarks. "In our case, it was possible to go out and bid contracts based on price, but not having the production capabilities in house that we needed, customer service was a very strong part of my consideration." Fortunately, both vendors were price competitive, as well.
"We look for the kind of printing and prepress partners that are going to be able to help us fill in the gaps," Ebert explains. "Publishers Press has a dedicated customer training facility. … They also produce a detailed production guidebook that instructs us on every part of the production process. It walks us through every step we need to take to allow them to print well."
On the horizon
As TP&W continues its efforts to become self-sustaining and even more profitable, Ebert and her colleagues will continue to look to new technologies to streamline workflow and save money.
Recently, ink-jet capabilities have allowed the magazine to add value to one of its insertions. Using personalized "inside/outside ink-jet labels," a campaign for Chevy's Suburban yielded great success. "The response from that promotion doubled Chevy's expectations," Ebert exclaims.
Because of the magazine's strong affiliation with the outdoors, it would seem appropriate for editorial content to be complemented with posters and fold-out maps, Ebert adds. With a print partner like Publishers Press, the technology to produce and insert these types of items is well within the publisher's reach.
And, like so many other magazines, Texas Parks & Wildlife is cautiously moving toward computer-to-plate production. "Both American Color and Publishers Press are telling us we're ready, but we're not quite convinced," Ebert states. From an editorial perspective, digital is a no-brainer. Advertising is another story.
"Frankly," Ebert confesses, "from what I see right now, the cost savings of going CTP are not overwhelming." Yet, Ebert is not about to let the CTP revolution pass her magazine by. She sees CTP's inherent value and is hopeful that costs will come down. Until then, she'll continue to work with vendors to test CTP workflow.
"We are in the process of talking with (Publishers Press) regarding the TIFF/IT format," Gonzales-Acord notes. "We recently had a TP&W recap meeting … about (copydot scans) and TIFF/ITs—the next stage in the digital workflow."
For Ebert, maintaining the status quo is not an option: "It's really nice when publishers are adept enough at the technology to see where new developments can take their magazines," she says. "We'll always look for other ways to take advantage of new technologies."
-Gretchen A. Kirby