"USA TODAY has required and maintained a high quality visual standard from the very beginning,” says Ron Cobbs, Operations Manager in the Production department. “Our charter has always been to use both words and graphics including widespread use of color, photos and other artwork to grab our readers’ attention and tell them the story of what happened in the last 24 hours, and what to expect in the next 24 hours.
Ready acceptance and adoption of the latest technologies has been a hallmark of the publication’s success. Without such technologies, the newspaper could not exist. The technology it employs is both extensive and sophisticated, incorporating communications satellites for file transmissions. And the entire USA TODAY production system, from pre-press to Computer-to-Plate, satellite network, and through to the actual printing plant, was designed with quality as the key goal.
Cobbs says, “From the beginning USA TODAY has always expected the highest imaging quality. We have always placed a very strong emphasis on the quality of our color, from taking pictures and scanning images in the early days, through color correction and output of film, and finally to press.”
He continues, “For us, making the transition to an all digital workflow was about maintaining that level of quality. We wanted to make sure we could translate the knowledge we gained in an analog/manual/partly digital world into our transition to fully digital production tools. We continue to monitor and implement the latest products and technologies that will help us achieve this goal.”
The latest technology plays a major role in the publication’s prepress operations department, which processes material provided by both its customers and the editorial department.
95% of ads are uploaded to USA TODAY via its web-based ad portal. The remaining 5% usually come in on CD-ROM or DVD. The ads are processed and saved as PDF files, which are converted to different file formats based on the production need. EPS files are sent to the paper’s CCI pagination system for placement on editorial pages.
G4 TIFF files are sent to Newsway, the CTP system, for transmission to print sites. All advertising and editorial images are already in digital format when they come into the department.
Up until a few years ago, image quality assurance and optimization during the “pre-media” phase of production at USA TODAY was purely a manual proposition, except for whatever QC could be achieved using the department’s standard applications, including Adobe CS4, Acrobat, Photoshop, Pitstop, and a few other tools. It wasn’t the most efficient use of operators’ time. This changed about three years ago, shortly after Print 07.
Cobbs and his staff had already been looking at tools for optimizing the imaging production process when they found Elpical at the Print 07 show, and saw the Claro image analysis and optimization software
The Claro software individually analyzes each individual image for a range of specific parameters including sharpness, brightness, contrast, color balance, natural greens, skin tones, Exif information and more. It handles image manipulation tasks automatically and optimizes the files for their intended uses.
Cobbs says, “We knew the people behind the company, and their software looked like it had a lot of promise. We decided to start testing and evaluating it to see how it would work in our production environment.”
Mike Grinder, a technician in the prepress operations department, says “We were looking for something that was priced right and could handle the volume and wide range of images we process each day, as well as give us more control.”
Grinder explains, “We have so many input profiles and we get pictures from different sources all over the world.” Cobbs concurs, saying, “We aren’t always in the position of having the best quality image to work with; so having the right tools to maximize quality is important to us.”
With Claro in the workflow, images are automatically converted and corrected based on USA TODAY pre-defined criteria. This allows the operators more time to work with images that require manual intervention. Claro can be helpful in those cases, as well – for instance, the software makes it possible to compare the enhanced image with the original in order to determine best next-steps.
In addition to working with many image input sources, the USA TODAY prepress operations department works with images already pre-formatted for different devices. Some images may come in formatted for web, coated for high ink density, for example, and need to be corrected and have a new profile for newsprint applied.
Grinder says, “Claro lets us do that and maintain both quality and the integrity of the image. Having the Claro software to automate the transformation process for using the images in different places, the web and print, for example, really decreases our workload. We’re using Claro to branch off for uses in other USA TODAY products. We can choose the correct profile depending on the use of the image and have it come out right, automatically, over and over again. We tune the profiles we use with Claro to our specific needs. With 35 domestic print sites, this is a great time saving.”
In total, USA TODAY is now processing more than 2000 images a month using the Claro software, and Cobbs and Grinder say their use of the application has brought a high degree of operation efficiency to the prepress operations department’s workflow. “With the Claro software”, says Grinder, “We no longer need to look at each individual image. We have set up our own rules, based on our requirements, for when an image needs to be checked manually.
As a result, Claro automatically corrects and pushes 60-75% of the images through, and flags the remainders that need manual intervention based on our criteria. The Claro software lets us control how we want the images optimized and gives us plenty of flexibility, but for the most part it’s an automated process. We press the button and send it on. We may see the image in the proofing pages, but otherwise we let it fly….”
Another advantage the Elpical Claro software offers is the ability to work directly in Photoshop, a familiar tool to everyone involved in image editing and processing. Says Grinder, “Claro doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel; they let Photoshop do it. Photoshop is integrated into the process.”
Concludes Cobbs, “Elpical Claro is helping us on the operational side by increasing our productivity as well as helping us meet and maintain our quality standards. And working with Elpical has been great. They listen to us and often incorporate our input about making their product better, and work hard to resolve any issue we come up with. In short, they’re tremendous to work with.”