Reorganizing the production department: upgrading the small publisher’s digital media capabilities
Some of the most knowledgeable, talented and dedicated publishing professionals I have met in 30+ years in publishing have been anonymous production managers – those individuals that make sure deadlines are hit, that the printer gets things right, and that can fit in that very late full page ad in and save the rear end of the publishing trying to make their budget numbers.
As magazine and newspaper publishers we expect the production manager to be the authority on so much, and when in doubt, to know who to call to get the right answer.
The role of the production manager, though, changed somewhat in the years between hot type and tablet publishing. At many media companies the position got a bit specialized in ways that meant that the production department began to mean print-only. When many small to medium sized publishers launched their first websites the work was generally outsourced, and the leader of the web team internally rarely had any connection to the print production department. At the time, this made perfect sense. It may even make sense today, but I also know that they kinds of skills the production manager is expected to have – the ability to keep up with technology, changes at vendors, and the ability to handle glitches – are also the kinds of skills needed to keep up with changes to mobile operating systems, changes in platforms, etc.
For many small publishers, the production manager position has not changed in many years. The office that is stuck back in the corner feels even more isolated today when conversations turn to digital publishing platforms, apps and the like.
Outsourcing digital has come with a high price. It is not the hiring of vendors that is the problem, it is the lack of internal capabilities to deal with vendors and to anticipate changes that is causing many companies to struggle with digital publishing.
One B2B magazine executive told me recently that he felt their production manager was “completely worthless” when it came to digital media matters. I asked them who that person’s boss was and was told it was, of course, that same executive. I smiled, but the exec struggled to get my point.
Somehow, in the growth of the web, then mobile, and now tablets, the idea of what “production” is about has ossified. It’s long past time to rethink the role of the production manager. Not every company can afford to hire a VP of Digital Strategy, or a team of infographic designers. So the positions that are maintained internally will have to evolve, just as the role of the editor has evolved (or in many cases, failed to evolve). Some tough choices may need to be made, but I also know through conversations with some productions managers that the personnel already onboard may be enthusiastic about any expansion or evolution of their positions.
* Image from the MEI website, a provider of software, production and design services.