PPI Media introduces next-level automation for newspaper layout 

Publishing software company adds another newspaper production module

Matthias Fischer, co-head of the ppi Media's business unit for content solutions

PPI Media, the Hamburg-based software developer for content and publishing production solutions, has over the past two years come up with another module that adds next-level automation to newspaper workflows. In a web interview with Matthias Fischer, head of ppiMedia’s business unit for newspaper solutions, which includes editorial front end, workflow, and layout solutions, Indian Printer and Publisher editors Naresh Khanna and Nilutpal Thakur attempted to understand the latest module in a series of ongoing developments for newspaper production. What follows are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP) – Please tell us about this latest workflow development and what were the market trends that made this development compelling.

Matthias Fischer – Around two years ago, as we were meeting with some success with our tohoop solution that creates a bridge between WordPress VIP or headless CMSs and Adobe InDesign, we realized that there is enormous pressure amongst German and US newspaper publishers to reduce costs and yet there is little room to make the print production of newspapers more efficient or more automated.

Nevertheless, we saw vast potential for reducing costs in the time and resource-intensive layout process for daily publications. Some of the newspapers in Europe still have as many as 30 people doing the layout of pages. That is why ppiMedia introduces the new Next Level Automation for print product layouts with the promise of achieving the level of high-quality manual layouts through automation.

ppiIt is a template-based solution aimed at producing extremely high-quality pages that runs in the cloud and uses the Adobe InDesign server at our end. Users can also do special pages and layouts at their own InDesign workstations.

This saves considerable costs for the publishers in terms of fewer InDesign licenses that could be reduced in some cases from let’s say, thirty or forty to just two or three. The solution is essentially an expert system based on the creation of templates into which the assigned content and advertisements are placed or flowed and the page is automatically laid out and appears on the user’s monitor.

The automated page layout can be accepted and sent to the print queue or tweaked and fined tuned without using or going into InDesign – subsequent layouts of the page are presented by the system which can also be tweaked or rejected or accepted by pressing the apply button. This reduces both the workstations running InDesign locally and the number of layout resources required. In addition, it optimizes the desk personnel’s inputs as more pages can be made faster and more attention can be paid to improving the content itself.

IPP – How does it work?

Fischer – Our solution is a template-based solution based on looking at your pages and templates that you upload to our server. We just look at your pages and the more templates or pages that you upload the easier it becomes for us to combine your preferences, style, and character or feel. We attempt to understand these and with our knowledge of typography, design, and newspaper production, create an expert solution for the various sections of your newspaper. 

If you are already doing the pages in InDesign the templates can be most easily extracted from these. From some of the other systems, making the new set of templates requires a bit more effort. One of our goals was to reach a quality level typographically and visually that was as good or nearly as good as if it had been done by a highly skilled and experienced resource to achieve a high-standard newspaper layout. 

Illustration 1: Green areas show the ad filling level and the blue areas show the editorial content level.

We find the best combination or combinations from looking at your pages and these become available to you in our web-based pre-planning view of the page. Allow me to demonstrate. Here you can see which articles are assigned to a particular page and if more are needed, you have to find some more stories to assign to it or flow in. The green areas are advertising content and the blue areas are editorial content and the white areas are empty. (Illustration 1)

We use a simple method of completing pages which is a calculation of how much of the page is filled. We are basically filling the level of the pages and here we have now reached 94% – which is fine since it is within our tolerance level. When we say apply, the system starts doing a first proposal. (Illustration 2)

Illustration 2: After reaching the desired fill level, a first version of the layout can be initiated.

We see the actual first proposed page with all the images, headlines, and text in the actual typography and layout – and if we don’t like it, we can change it and ask the system to create a new version. I don’t like it much, so I ask the system to reset a small two-column story in the middle of the page. We can change it and we can say apply. The new version is quickly created. And if is accepted, it will be assigned to the edition. Some corrections and tweaking can be done by the user even without going into InDesign. Only in special cases or if there are extensive changes then a local version of the InDesign server would be needed. 

Illustration 3: Alternative versions can be automatically and quickly created.

Thus you just assign content to a layout and we are taking care of the layout in the cloud and you get the result on your local monitor for sending to production. It’s totally transparent, and there is no hidden stuff that requires administration.

IPP – Who pays for the external IP used in this solution – for instance the Adobe InDesign server and the fonts used by the publisher for your automated layout in the cloud?

Fischer – There is a small fee for the use of the InDesign Server at our end. For more complex layouts and pages, the customer can install InDesign locally. We can provide the shared InDesign on our site or a dedicated InDesign server on our sight. For more complex pages, we recommend that the customer has an InDesign server locally. The fonts are the customer’s responsibility so the customer has to pay for these. The publisher has to buy them and provide them to us. 

IPP – Do you already have customers and installations of the ppiMedia automated layout module?

Fischer – We started from the German newspapers a couple of years ago. Current customers include a European book publisher which has fully automated its publicity material, a corporate scientific product publisher in Switzerland, a couple of large magazine publishers in Europe, and Aviation Week magazine in the US where the customer is trying it out with its publications and testing it to replace their editorial system from another vendor to see how it integrates with their processes and works for them. We call this Proof of Concept in which we provide a full version of the product and they pay for it and if they find it acceptable they continue to pay for it. 

IPP – What’s next for this automated layout engine or module?

Fischer – What we showed you is already available, although it will keep being developed further. The customer pipeline is looking very good. Further developments may include a second module that would investigate the repository of stories. For instance, there could be a situation when we have too much content and we need to decide which stories are to be used and which can be taken out. If we have too much content then we could just create a hot net and the system would decide the priority. 

IPP – We have written earlier about PPI’s tohoop software that creates a bridge between WordPress and InDesign. This was seen as an alternative to earlier editorial and publishing systems because it allows publishers to use Open Source software and to publish content on both the web and for print from the same newsroom. Is the automated layout solution in the cloud an extension of that development?

Fischer – Most of the customers want WordPress, but the concept of tohoop, is cms agnostic. We can connect to many systems such as Sprylab, Livingdocs, WordPress VIP, and Newspack. We are very open and modular and can connect to many systems. With our open API, any CMS can be integrated or extended with a print channel. We call this a headless CMS which means a content management system that separates the presentation layer (where content is presented) from the backend (where content is managed). A headless CMS allows you to manage content in one place and be able to deploy that content on any digital channel you choose. We can also extend WordPress for specific needs. 

We talk about a headless CMS since it doesn’t matter which CMS and which channel you are outputting to. To answer your question, yes the automated layout engine for print is another of our several modular developments that encompass the various functions of a newspaper including content, web and print production, and advertising. 

This software will be demonstrated in Indian Printers Summit, Kochi at Stand 7.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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