With a Capital C
They heard what people were saying, that digital technology was expensive, awkward and faulty. But they proved the rumors wrong. Instead, acting as a beta test site for CadmusMack (www.cadmusmack.com) in 1996, Central PA magazine (www.centralpa.org) went digital, computer-to-plate (CTP), proofless and has been using a PDF workflow for more than a year. With a circulation of approximately 40,000, this regional magazine turned into the publication that could, making CTP a success in an industry that has often claimed "size matters." The undertaking is noteworthy, since the magazine's wealth of advertising ranges from "mom-and-pop" shops to statewide and national brand names interested in courting loyal WITF public television and radio supporters to whom it's exclusively mailed.
But to understand Central PA's workflow is to first appreciate its demographic. Formally known as Apprise, today's Central PA is housed in the Middle Atlantic state's capitol of Harrisburg, a town that boasts an urban beat, but is bordered on all sides by small towns, farm lands and convenient routes to nearby cities Philadelphia, New York and Washington. It's a heterogeneous climate that caters to a diverse readership lauding "phantom" restaurant reviews and insights into local color. For the magazine, fusing old-fashioned features with the latest publishing technology contributes to a progressive year behind the scenes.
The inner sanctum
From her desk, Julie Fasano, the magazine's production manager, is busy with the next issue of Central PA. Both her dexterity and humor are apparent during a hectic day—the norm ever since she and CadmusMack rewrote the prescription for production.
"The big step that has been eliminated is the blueline," says Fasano. "In 1996, when we began these discussions, the belief was that if things went CTP, there would be no film, and therefore no blueline. We eliminated the blueline process in July 1997 and saved about four days in the schedule." Since then, soft proofing and other forms of digital proofs have become more popular industry-wide, though Fasano has further scaled down by using only laser proofs bound for Cadmus. She says as a result, "We have been able to extend ad close deadlines. There is no more page assembly at the printer; we send complete files."
Still, an eager Fasano admits that while digital conversion saves time, it also creates a new work regimen: "I spend more time troubleshooting files and preflighting. What we send out to Cadmus has to be exactly what we want to print, so I have to double-check the color lasers, as well as the files. A computer problem can be the death of us fairly quickly. We had a server crash recently and it took some creative scrambling to move all of the files before the whole thing died!"
In the details
Despite glitches, under the guidance of its WITF parent and its printer, conversion of the magazine's January 2001 issue was a cool one.
"By the end of 1999, we got [the magazine] into PDF," explains Charlie Detruit, CadmusMack's Mid-Atlantic digital services team manager. "From a printer's perspective, we can get a magazine 80 percent of the way there. The other 20 percent is having to make changes in the client's environment. The nice thing about a monthly magazine is that you can work the bugs out each issue so they never become an ongoing problem."
Fasano says the trial and error process is now standardized: "We submit our material on disk [jazz or zips] along with a complete set of color lasers [that act as a guide for the printer]." In fact, it was only until the nation witnessed one of the most tumultuous events in its history did Central PA's production train halt. "During the events of September 11, when no planes were flying, we ended up transferring the magazine via FTP site," recounts Fasano. "Since Cadmus did not have any color lasers to proof against, they e-mailed me a soft proof and we did an approval that way. I guess that necessity is the mother of invention."
Fasano also reports that PDF/CTP production actually "reduces the amount of time that our job needs to go through the prepress end. All of the components [art, photos and typefaces] have been embedded so there are no issues with reflow or corruption. It takes me about a day to prepare all of the PDF files."
The power of two
The magazine's staff similarly demonstrates a talent of evolving for necessity's sake. "We didn't really have any concentrated 'training' because it was a gradual switch," Fasano says. "We were all able to adjust to preparing files differently. The 'production department' is basically me, so I have all of the responsibility to check the final files, but I know that 'we' are all more aware of how the file preparation affects the final printed piece."
The "we" also refers to Graphic Designer Courtney Howell, who ensures fonts are embedded, images are high-resolution and color is clean. "It's been a lot easier," says Howell, since going CTP. "Instead of having to go in and check all of the files, I can actually just place them."
She explains, "It's lessened the time, but there's more room for small errors. One thing I have to watch out for are menu fonts in Quark documents." In total, Howell records only about one-in-100 bad submissions a month—usually Word documents or low-resolution logos that are corrected by replacing images with Photoshop-ready files or simply by running documents through checking software.
Survival of the fittest
"In the early stages, what we were doing was very new and not a lot of advertisers were in the electronic age," Fasano admits. "We did a lot of up-front work preparing info sheets on what we will accept, how things need to be prepared and what needs to be included." She personally spent time talking with advertisers about file preparation, especially the smaller, local ones who she says may not have always been very computer literate. So as not to discourage these regional clients, under unique circumstances, they're encouraged to send camera-ready slicks or request that ads be prepared by the magazine. "At this point, we get about 95 percent of our ads in some digital form," she reports. "What we have done in our rate structure is to offer free production on ads, and offer a discount to clients who submit their ads to us in a digital form to our specifications. We do not want to penalize the smaller advertisers who do not have the tools to prepare a digital ad."
Detruit believes that by beginning the digitization process as far back as 1997 without actually moving to CTP until 1999, "It gave [the magazine] more time to get advertisers to submit less copydots." Simultaneously, Cadmus was in the process of revamping its presses. "At the time, they were [printing] on a large-format system, but we didn't have a large-format CTP system. But by January 2000, we got a large-format device that would suit [Central PA's] press run," he explains.
A group effort
The same way the magazine's advertisers evolved, so has Fasano. Whereas she once sorted through film and bluelines, she now spends her production time differently. "I do some in-house scanning and image-editing. I troubleshoot and check any problem ads," she says.
She also updates information sheets as new technologies emerge, an important step that not only helps advertisers get on the same page with production, but also encourages editorial and design departments to be in sync. Because the magazine is operated by a TV and radio broadcasting company, these departments meet multi-media projects. Explains Fasano.,"I schedule projects for on-air graphics and corporate work." In essence, materials that are prepared for print may also be reconfigured for television and radio campaigns.
No such thing as a stupid question
Settled into CTP in 2002, Fasano says she often meets questions from fellow publishers about the conversion process in retrospect. "Most of the [questions]," says this veteran, "revolve around digital ads because that is the spot where we all have the least control." She says that when the process is expanded outside the four walls of the office and into the hands of clients, people have a tendency to get nervous about the prospect of succeeding, which attributes to fears about CTP conversion in the first place. She advises that concerns are secondary to good communication, however, and that with dialogue on behalf of the printer, advertisers and production team, progress is possible—and relatively painless.
She and Howell, like many production managers and designers, are also concerned about time spent fixing faulty ads and how to remedy problems early. "We have yearly round table discussions about these issues," champions Fasano. "It works. Being a non-profit organization, trying to find easier and less expensive ways to do things is a constant challenge."
Detruit agrees that steps a magazine publisher should make begins with "getting directly involved with the printer. We promote getting involved in the conversion process by working with designers to get files set-up properly. That's really what counts the most. Just like we're showing how to make a PDF to clients, we're extending that training to a client's advertisers." In the end, he adds, "They'll confront the same issues we do."
-Natalie Hope McDonald