Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Village Voice conversion from Atex to Quark

Change comes slowly at the Village Voice. “The weekly newspaper of New York,” as it bills itself, is now in its 40th year as the paper of record of the liberal left. Though its reputation was built on New York City and national political coverage and extensive arts reviews, the Voice also runs a gossip column, a TV/computers section that first called itself Wired over a year before the magazine of that name, an unconventional sports section, and 500 display ads a week.

For the last eight years, all the editorial sections of the Voice and much of its display advertising have been edited, designed, and output using the Atex dedicated composition system. Though the Voice may fall into the “alternative newsweekly” category, it’s a big paper: With an editorial staff of about 40 and a classified staff of roughly the same size, complemented by art and production departments totalling some 35, the Voice churns out 160 tabloid pages every week (some 200 pages for the one issue a month comprising the Voice Literary Supplement).

Under the Atex system, says Linda Nelson, director of new media and technology, “designers get a line count from the formatted Atex story and use it to draw paper layouts. Type is then sent by the copy department in galley form, and pasted up on boards by production staff according to the layout – the old tried, true, and quite efficient method.” Then, finished boards are shot and stored as film negatives. Each week, editorial and advertising pages close no later than Monday night, with materials shipped to a (non-union) plant in Virginia on Tuesday for printing; finished copies are distributed locally (and beyond) starting on Wednesday.

The decision to go desktop took place about five years ago when Atex’s parent company was in the throes of bankruptcy, but more than the longevity of Atex was on the minds of Voice executives. Coordinating the task of weaning Voice production away from Atex and onto Mac-based DTP fell into Nelson’s lap. But the transition from Atex to Macintosh pagination has been bumpy: Not only have production personnel had to become conversant with two distinct production platforms, the entire editorial staff and a good chunk of advertising personnel were confronted with radically overhauled production procedures.

DTP itself is not a novelty at the Voice, given that former design director Bob Newman (now at Entertainment Weekly) oversaw use of Quark Xpress on the Macintosh to produce cover art for over two years before wholesale Atex-to-Mac conversion began. The Sports section, home to everything from nuts-and-bolts football and baseball stories to reportage on cheerleading competitions and the Gay Games, was chosen as guinea pig for all-Macintosh pagination in September 1993. (The rest of the paper stuck with Atex.) Historically, Sports has tended to close at the deadest of deadlines late on Monday night; converting Sports to DTP could thus simulate a production worst-case.

Under the trial system, the Sports section’s copy undergoes all the regular checks by the sports editor, then fact-checking, copy-editing, and a check for legal problems. Later, each finalized story is filed in a special “queue” on the Atex; that queue is regularly polled by an Xtension called Atan Xpress from John Juliano Enterprises which imports styled text to Quark Xpress. Lines are transferred with endings chosen by the Atex system (which, at the time, Nelson’s staff preferred to Xpress’s linebreaks) and flowed into a template that matches the layout of the rest of the paper except for a difference in body font (Sports got its own face, Berthold Concorde, while the rest of the paper stuck with Times Roman).

That, at least, was the ideal procedure. In the real world, though, the mixed-platform approach threw up some roadblocks. Even in the best case, using the Atex system for word processing and Macintosh for pagination would make the Sports pages’ layout the very last task, but since the section already closes late, nail-biting art and production staff ended up designing and flowing copy before the text of the entire section was set in stone. Occasionally text snippets like last-minute scores or corrections would have to be entered in Atex, transmitted to Xpress, and spliced into the layout – all at what was often quite literally the eleventh hour.

Nelson was dissatisfied with the “workflow” in the Sports section. “To use a desktop system effectively, you want the information to come in from your editors and your copy-editors as correct as possible.” Nelson had in mind a revised editorial/production procedure that would ask writers, editors, and copy, fact, and legal checkers to use the Atex system as a word-processing front end. After those processes had already started, art and production staff would begin working with semi-accurate dummy copy (extracted halfway through the editorial process, for example) to come up with designs. Once stories had cleared facts, copy, and legal, any post-facto editorial changes would be made on finalized Xpress pages, not on Atex. (The decision to stay with a mixed-platform office may sound anachronistic, but Nelson sees clear advantages of the Voice’s eight Atex servers, like “notes mode,” which lets editors and writers embed nonprinting elucidations into stories; built-in E-mail; and easy archiving of initial, intermediate, and final versions of a story.)

Putting these procedures in place would require the guidance of a strong managing editor and a unified production team, a requirement that could not have come at a worse time in the Voice’s history. Bob Newman left his design-director post in February 1994; editor-in-chief Jon Larsen resigned in February 1994 and managing editor Sarah Jewler left for New York magazine a month later. The art department saw the addition of two full-time and one part-time staffmembers to replace five people who left between May and September 1994. And that wasn’t all: As Nelson puts it, “the photo department also underwent complete transition,” with the duties of photo editor assumed by the design director. Systems director Donna Bates resigned in November 1994 to go to Newsday; at press time for this story, a permanent replacement had not been hired.

The personnel void did not last forever – Doug Simmons was promoted to managing editor in fall 1994; Karen Durbin, late of Mirabella, was named editor-in-chief in May 1994; and Audrey Schachnow was lured away from the Village Voice–like Houston Press in August 1994 to become design director – but it put a major kink in Nelson’s plans.

On the other hand, conversion of display and classified advertising to Mac pagination went smoothly. At 30 to 40 pages a week, classified ads are a major cash cow for the Voice, and the paper is sticking with the Atex Integrated Advertising System it has used for years. The software lets ad-takers type in the text of an ad, which it then crunches to produce an on-the-spot cost quote for the advertiser. After publication, the same system sends out a bill. The only DTP modification Nelson made to this time-proven procedure was final pagination, now handled by Xpress using a seven-column layout set in Avant Garde Gothic. Again, Nelson says, the Atex "front end" was and will be retained: "We have [had] an active, live search going on continually for the last two or three years for a replacement for that [system]," with no luck, Nelson says.

Display advertisements are an unusual mix of ads designed by the Voice for mom-and-pop New York-area retailers and big-name movie and music ads placed by entertainment conglomerates. Ads the paper receives in camera-ready form, like those for feature films placed by the big studios, are typically scanned and stored. At least, says Nelson, “this is our plan. At the moment, most of the big, full-page ads are placed, camera-ready, on boards, and shot to film. We provide plate-ready film to our printer. We are in the process of purchasing an additional scanner with which we will convert more of the camera-ready material to electronic files, which we save as EPS files.” The goal is for all the ads in an issue to exist in electronic form before being output to negatives.

For ads created in-house, the paper uses Multi-Ad Services, Inc.’s Multi-Ad Creator and Xpress as design and layout tools. For all display ads regardless of source, the tasks of reserving space, dummying, and billing are handled by Software Consulting Services’ SCS Entry and Layout 8000, the latter running under the Unix-clone Xenix operating system on a Dell 486 computer. Final ads in correct position are transmitted from another Software Consulting Services program, SCS Lnx (sic), to Xpress via a TCP (i.e., Internet-style) connection. As Nelson describes it, “The dummies are transferred to the editorial Quark pages on the Mac via SCS Lnx, which also makes a path to all digitized ad material [on a server] and places [the material] in its proper position on the page.”

Nelson’s production-department changes to the editorial workflow are paralleled by the process of revamping the Voice’s design. The paper’s last wholesale redesign was in 1988, and the Voice very much looks like the intellectual paper it is, with dense masses of type and few photographs. “It’s probably the worst-looking thing on the market today,” says new design director Audrey Schachnow. “It sort of hides itself. The writing in it is really smart and really aggressive and really edgy, though the newspaper does not look that way.”

In mid-October 1994, Schachnow transformed the centre-of-the-book Listings section from a grey mass leavened only by Franklin Gothic subheads and a few big photos into a more graphically rich “pull-out” section called Voice Choices (oddly, not the more alliterative “Voice‘s Choices”). Using Galliard for (still tiny) body text and various flavours of Goudy for headlines, Voice Choices carries its own cover, with pages dotted with photos and swash type and replete with – whitespace!

That combination of airy layout with filigreed, ornate typography would be pursued in feature articles, which as of late 1994 began to use Galliard as main body font (with one experimental foray into Goudy Village). Schachnow chose Galliard (a) because she likes it (“I think Galliard is really hearty“) and (b) after running tests with various faces (she can’t recall the other candidates) during actual runs at the Virginia printing plant, which produces 200,000-odd copies in only 12 hours on what Schachnow calls a “very dusty, messy kind of newsprint. It’s my opinion, humble though it may be and I may be wrong, that we’re using the worst [newsprint].”

Still, even after all this water under the DTP bridge, neither the technical nor the artistic end of the conversion process is even close to completion. Schachnow had only begun to think about a complete redesign as this story went to press (she notes that only the Galliard body face, with custom kerning pairs, might remain from the current features/cover/Choices look), and Nelson won’t even venture to say when all the new equipment and interfaces will be in place. The task of converting the Voice to desktop publishing was supposed to be complete by the end of 1993.

Originally published 1995 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.27, 2007.03.19

Homepage: Joe Clark Homepage: Joe Clark Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.) Graphic and industrial design Journalism, articles, book