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There’s been a lot of discussion in the printing industry about how to create added value to customer services. Many printers report that the installation of MISTRAL directly benefits not only them, but their customers as well.

Such is the case with Brown Printing, whose customer, Niche Media, has become measurably more efficient and productive—and, best of all, has actually saved money — using B.Direct, Brown’s MISTRAL-based online production automation system.

Niche Media LLC is the country’s preeminent regional magazine group, catering to the high-end luxury market through the pages of six distinct publications: Aspen Peak, Boston Common, Capitol File, Gotham, Hamptons, and Los Angeles Confidential. Niche Media taps into these exceptionally prominent markets and creates city-specific magazines that offer the best in fashion, food, celebrity, culture, society, style, philanthropy, shelter, and personality-driven stories. All Niche publications utilize the best writers in each region, and never duplicate content. Niche publishes Hamptons magazine, which is considered the largest weekly publication in the US.

On any given week, 49 times a year, Niche Media processes about 300 pages, including advertising. For example, Hamptons is scheduled all summer, with issues ranging from 120 pages to as many as 378 pages in the larger holiday issues, which come out on Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day.

When Shawn Lowe, director of manufacturing of Niche Media, first arrived a little over a year ago, the publisher was communicating to its printers using a three-ring binder with plastic sleeves and black-and-white laser prints, which were shipped to each plant. As problems or changes arose, Niche communicated via fax. There was no real way of knowing what the plant had, other than what it sent by fax. “E-mails would pop up, one by one, telling us we were missing pages. It was hard to track, to say the least,” recalls Lowe.

“Coming from The New York Times, where I was very involved with the Digital Asset Management system,” Lowe adds, “I looked at MISTRAL and immediately saw its potential; I knew what it could do for us. The first thing I did when I met Brown Printing — and learned about their B.Direct service — was to get rid of that three-ring binder.”

As for the breaking-in period, Lowe says, “Using the system for the first time was easy. In essence, we sent files to a ‘clipboard,’ and posted them on pages on the form. It just started and happened. The first issue was Hamptons, and the big question was: Did I trust the system? My answer was, ‘Absolutely.’”Niche’s digital imaging area is composed of retouchers, prepress operators, and a production traffic assistant who, when a book is in closing, all work with editors to route editorial files to the magazine form. To get ads ready, the staff preflights and normalizes them, and sets them up as PDF/X-1a files. When a final map is available for a magazine, they send the ads, populate the pages, then add editorial.

Once an ad is sent either to Brown’s East Greenville, Pennsylvania, or Woodstock, Illinois, printing plants, it’s put on a ”clipboard” and assigned a reference number for the data tracking system that’s available to everyone involved in the project, from sales to finance to production. For example, when ad 12345 is sent to the plant, the printer will also receive a map and an ad list showing what page the ad goes on. (Niche is also currently testing an automatic numbering system so that ad filename "123435_25" can be dropped into MISTRAL and directly placed on the proper page, which eliminates the possibility of mistakes.)

Every week, from Wednesday through Monday, Niche Media is uploading and building magazines. On Monday, Niche looks at B.Direct to confirm a magazine is complete, and they send it. “I’m very systematic,” explains Lowe. “There’s now a system. With B.Direct, we closed the latest Hamptons magazine—all 378 pages—in 48 hours. It’s unbelievable. And it doesn’t cost us anything!”

“But most importantly, B.Direct provides Niche with the assurance that the material the plant has is 100 percent correct,” says Lowe. “There are no unanswered questions—everyone is on the same page.”

And a year later, the system is still expanding, Lowe says. “Niche Media started in the most basic way. Now we’re getting more and more control of the system itself. On pubs printed in the same plant, we can pick up ads from one issue and send them to another. We can access pickup ads from Hamptons’ first issue, for example, and send the pages to Gotham’s second issue. This reduces RIPping costs, which saves a lot of
money.”

Of course, even without the ad pickups, Niche is saving an incredible amount of time as well. The CSRs at Brown’s plants love it. There are no more e-mail messages. Instead, everyone is all sharing the same information in real time.

“With the same staff, we’re now working on six books rather than four—all but two magazines are produced through Brown,” says Lowe. “As a group, the four books we create with Brown are produced more efficiently and cost-effectively than the two we produce elsewhere. We have built-in incentives with Brown based upon sending materials on time. A year ago, if we’d been given that offer, we never would have succeeded. Heck, they could have offered a 50 percent discount to close a book on time, and it wouldn’t have happened. Now we meet our deadlines on time, all the time.

“Although I know B.Direct can operate as a true collaborative tool, as far as I’m concerned, the advantages go beyond collaboration,” continues Lowe. “We send an ad or editorial page, and they post it. I’m not looking for collaboration—just an opportunity to send pages from a book, put content in place, and move on. I need to supply the plant with what they need. By knowing what I sent, and being assured—in real time—that it’s on the right page, there’s no communication needed. If something changes, we mark it, and B.Direct communicates with the plant immediately. The system speaks for us. It saves us money when making plates, and it provides the plant with the option to plate a different form. It really keeps the ball rolling. For us, the MISTRAL system is the difference between working in bright light, and working in complete darkness.”

“Using MISTRAL technology, Brown’s B.Direct is the common link between the
printer and me,” says Lowe. “I know the page and I know the ads and editorial. It’s all there. And that’s all the information anyone could ask for.”