October 23, 2013 Last Updated 8:07 am

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.

cross-media-publishing-lgThe 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.

  • Dean Cook 4 years ago

    Great article which I can only (and naturally) agree but for me it isn’t down to the lack of internal capabilities. Yes, our roles always evolve but I think there comes a point where we can only do so much in one day. Equally it is met with reservation when trying to find the best digital publishing solution whilst sitting within the smaller publishers’ budgets when they’re servicing advertisers to a qualified readership. My job has amalgamated several roles over 20 years. Today, we liaise with the printers, take a design brief from advertisers (and offer marketing advice while we’re at it), we prepare the flat plan, design and produce the magazine, iron out technical issues from supplied assets and deliver flawless files to the printers on-time – heck, we’ve even been asked to take photos and write last-minute filler articles! As there are so many hours you can work, from a selfish point of view, to deliver a magazine digitally needs to be quick, cost-effective and easily manageable. However, being on the leading-edge of technological development, I share caution with small publishers on how to best deliver a wealth of content effectively within limited resources and budgets when you are publishing to 10-20,000 readers without making advertising rates prohibitive to advertisers because the majority are small businesses too. In the publishers’ eyes there are more effective ways to deliver ‘content-of-the-day’ by other digital channels using their limited resources and with little or no cost to time or money. On another note, and a raised concern of a few, is why would any publisher create an App when you are limiting your digital audience to just iPad and iPhone users. With an excess of 10,000 devices, plus those who still work on laptop and desktop computers, one publisher deemed the App to be a waste of good money which would be better invested in their website that is available to all. Some even voiced an attraction of poor reader ratings on Apple’s Newsstand would simply damage the publication’s reputation. So, not only are we production managers, we listen to our publishers and see trends too. Just because the tools to exercise creativity are available doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be successful if it’s not financially or practically viable to employ in the first place.

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