Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The dirty little secret why many publishers can't develop their own tablet editions: they got rid of the art directors

Playing around inside InDesign and in the Mag+ plug-in the past day or so has reminded me how much I've fallen behind in my magazine and newspaper production skills. I workin' it, but it is tough sledding.

The hands-on experience of doing the work yourself is a gentle reminder that many publishers are in the predicament they are in because they have slashed their production capabilities, along with their futures, when they began downsizing in order to maintain their profit margins. Now their profits are gone, as well as the very tools necessary to compete in the new electronic media environment.
I always admit that I was lucky to have worked in San Francisco during the early years of not only the Internet boom, but the years when desktop publishing developed to look like what we have today. QuarkXPress and Photoshop became the standard publishing tools used by the production staff and as a publisher I felt it important to at least learn rudimentary production skills -- better to communicate with the production managers and art directors.

In 1992, my publishing unit at McGraw-Hill was responsible for one publication plus its special editions. My production department, meanwhile, was made up of five or six people, a couple that were absolute desktop publishing wizards. Within a year we launched a magazine (to go along with our daily newspaper) and the staff absorbed the work without a hitch -- in fact, it became the real fun part of the job.

Today, the idea that a small magazine could have a half dozen people solely responsible for production is out of the question. Only the big consumer magazines have large production staffs.

At a media company where I was once a group publisher, one industry group has one art director spread over three magazines -- and that talented guy isn't even an employee, but an independent contractor.

Not surprisingly, publishers like that one are completely at the mercy of third party vendors when it comes to developing new digital publishing products. There is simply no way they can ask their current staff, assuming they have a current staff, to learn and then perform tablet and mobile publishing production.

Now before I get bombarded with emails from vendors, let me just say that I think there is certainly a place for outsourced production -- whether it is print magazine work, or digital. What is at issue here is corporate knowledge.

How many B2B media executives, if told that they needed to scan, resize and place a photo into a design layout could do it? Now, while I understand how to create a magazine page, I certainly wouldn't hire myself to do the work. But this basic knowledge of art direction/production is helpful when considering deadlines, production time tables, etc. It is also helpful when discussing new ideas and concepts with the art director. Maybe it is old fashioned, but I think it is important that the publishing executives involved in decision making have some rudimentary understanding of their craft. (Naive, I know.)

Move on now to the issue application development, a concept that has many publishers, and more than a few journalists, shaking in their boots. Many of these professionals, and many media writers, have just gotten their heads around web publishing. With the ease of web posting thanks to easy to use content management systems, things have gotten comfortable lately. No more.

So what do you do if you are one of those publishing firms that has right-sized themselves into oblivion? (Let's consider that a rhetorical question for now and move on.)

For others, though, possible answers may be right around the corner. At the same time that digital publishing solution companies are making available easier and cheaper native design tools, others are introducing better (and cheaper) one-stop design services, as well. Just as it is possible to launch an iPhone or Android app for little or no money through online design companies, new tablet publishing services are coming out, as well.

Today's digital publishing environment is very reminiscent of the dawn of desktop publishing. That era allowed new publishers to launch publications more quickly and efficiently. The newsletter publishing industry exploded thanks to desktop publishing, just as it exploded again thanks to the rise of email newsletters. For myself and others excited about the future of web, mobile and tablet publishing, it is time to reeducate ourselves. For media executives, it is time to make sure that your staffs are ready for a transition that will prove as to be as transformative as was the changes that occurred thanks to both desktop publishing and then web publishing.