Web to Print

September 21, 2006

It looks very logical that WCMS should drive print, or atleast that it should be easy to use web content for print. After all, the content entry part of a WCMS is no less than a print workflow system allowing you to contribute content, provide meta-data etc. You could also possibly do basic formatting like highlighting some-portions of content bold or italic. You can possibly also have different versions of the story to fit different outputs (Like a Web Edition version and a Print Edition Version) – Well, yes, not all WCMS allow that but there are a few which do. You can associate pictures with stories. You can maintain categorization and association with other content. You have a workflow, everything seems to work – so what is the issue?

To understand the Issue, let’s go thru the workflow of a typical daily news-paper.

 There are three prime content sources

– Feeds from New agencies like AFP/AP/Reuters and other news agencies (Stories / Images / Multimedia )

– New stories and images filed by the Field Reporters and photographers

– Columns, Analysis, Graphics/Cartoons and other stories (Editorial, Opinions, Letters to Editor etc.)

The first two categories, being news, are unpredictable in Nature, while the third is created for a specific need for a specific edition/page/space.

The Editorial department is usually divided by genre – like sports, national news, local news, world news, literary etc.

As the news flows in, the department looking after that genre assigns individual Journalists with one or more set of developing stories which look interesting.

The departments will have a cut-off time depending on the print start time (could be 4 PM in the afternoon if printing starts at 12 in the midnight), by when they would have decided on the stories they want to follow and cover. They will pick up a new story later only if it is important, but the way world works, you get most leads by 4 PM local time (except world news).

The journalists pick these stories and convert them to a finished form. The Journalists write the stories in Inverse Pyramid format – most important content on the top – so that they can be cut out from the bottom while still having a complete story.

These departments have pre-allocated set of pages on a pre-defined set of editions. On some days, the newspaper may carry lots of literary content, and on some other days, only half a page of it. They know that beforehand and the stories they have collected are to fit that space.

The headline of a story is one of its most important aspect and the department editor would review / approve the same. The editorial / advertising space ratio on a paper are also decided beforehand and known to the editorial team.

The departments have another deadline, usually something like print minus 4 hours. By this time, each department should have the stories and images in finished form and ready for discussion in an Editorial meeting to decide what goes on the front page. At this point in time, the stories which go in each page of an edition is decided / frozen. The relative priorities are given, the column-inch space is decided and the “Authors” can go home.

The department editors now work with “Sub Editors”. The job of the sub-editors is to make the story fit in the allocated space, by cutting and rewording them.

The Department editors make sure that the headline continues to be catchy even if they need to be contracted or expanded. For sub-editing, it is critical that you know exactly how much space a story is going to take on the print.

After this, the final step is the page composition, where the stories are copied into Quark or Adobe pages, the images are added, the advertisements flow in and the final “Plate” is generated, proofed, and released for printing. The final page composition and story editing by sub-editors happens in tools like Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign. These 2 tools occupy 90% of market-share between them.

Now the success of a news system is measured in its ability to improve Freshness of content: How late can you submit the stories for print. Can you do at 11:30 for a 12:00 deadline?

In order to delay submission, you need to be absolutely sure that the content authors themselves can fit the stories exactly to the required space without the intervention of sub-editors. Is this a possibility – can a CMS help?

Now let’s come back to WCMS for a minute.

For web, real estate is not an issue. You can scroll down and have a long story.

For WCMS, it is important to see how it will look on a web browser – not on print.

For WCMS, the images are optimized for the browser – small size and RGB.

For print – Real estate is an issue. You need to know exactly how many column inches for a story. The column inches depend on multiple things like the Font Face (most newspapers use custom built fonts), Font Leading (sort of like line spacing), Hyphenation & Justification and the styles used in print. The browsers of today do a very lousy job of that. Microsoft word is close (if you work hard in creating such a template) but, the final editing system (Quark XPressor Adobe InDesign) is the only thing which is 100% accurate.

For a CMS to be successful in print, it must allow preview, and measurement and possibly editing in a rich editor like MS Word (with advanced hyphenation and justification control). The users must be able to view the story in the context it needs to be printed.

It must support and link multiple Versions of the same story, edited to different sizes for publishing in different editions.

Like Stories, a CMS must allow having a print version of the image as well and must support Apple Mac – as image editors prefer to edit / preview images on them.

Having addressed the size, there are two other issues

– Tying in the workflow at entry points – from news feeds, field reporters, field photographers and offline story writers.For the entry, a WCMS must allow the following:

  • Support “Read only” categories
  • Support the News Feeds and submitting content via Email  out of the box
  • Support content written in editors like Word without messing up characters like Single Quotes
  • Should contemplate having rich clients – or offer similar speed and features ( like select all and upload multiple images from a folder, reading metadata from image comments etc)

For the output, a WCMS must allow the following

  • Publish a very simple to use XML Format RSS like feed for transferring data.
  • Must publish simpler to use REST type methods for manipulating data and workflow states.
  • WCMS vendors must publish plugins or SDK for Quark Xpress, Adobe InDesign and possibly Microsoft Word, which makes it easy for the respective developers to get content in. These plugins should also support converting content from Print to Web format, and for capturing size information as metadata as well.
  • WCMS should relax the “content being independent from formatting ” bit  and contemplate the possibility of supporting Tables, styles and “comments” apart from bold/italics – in a manner that the content can still be purposed equally meaningfully to web and print media.

The WCMS systems in the market today support the above partially. While some systems don’t allow multiple versions of the same content, some others don’t make it easy to integrate with Microsoft Office, and some don’t handle styles.They have to go a long way before they come anywhere close to integrating with print systems.

The complete blame does not lie with the WCMS vendors. The print systems have a high per-seat licensing and the few vendors with page composition tools make it difficult for external systems to interface with them. There are also visible lack of standards, although the entire industry uses either Quark or InDesign. These vendors need to do more to become external editing friendly to enable the success of a WCMS in print.

Thanks Vineet [ vineetg at mindtree dot com ] for helping me with this.

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One Response to “Web to Print”

  1. apoorv Says:

    Very good post. How about building on it and writing a larger article?


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