Creative Loafing Consolidates Production

Move saves money, ensures consistency

Atlanta is no longer just the home of Creative Loafing’s flagship paper but is now a veritable production bunker for the chain’s five weeklies, saving money and ensuring quality and consistency.

When Creative Loafing Charlotte comes on board next month, all five of the chain’s weeklies will be laid out, designed, and produced within its Atlanta offices.

According to CEO Ben Eason, the move that began eight months ago was driven by a need for consistency of quality and appearance.

“One of the biggest issues with alternative papers is that the (advertising) industry has to get comfortable,” says Eason. “These papers are very different in terms of writing and editorial content, but in terms of look and feel and tone, the more consistent you can be the better. If you’re a publisher in these markets, you need to be worried about high-quality editorial and advertisements, and if you’re also worried about growth and moving fast, this is one less thing you have to worry about.”

Creative Services Director Ted Bodnar says the chain is not “looking to cookie cutter them, but to achieve some standard in terms of layout.”

“If you have an advertiser that wants to buy an ad in your music section, it’s nice to be sure there’s a music section in every paper,” Bodnar says.

Uniformity of design is not the only incentive to centralizing production. According to Bodnar, the chain’s production overhead has also consolidated. Since moving production to Atlanta, costs that once hovered as high as $70 per page have shrunk to a chain-wide average of $48 to $50 per page. Bodnar also notes that with one production team, each paper does not have to maintain computer equipment, therefore avoiding capital investments and depreciation.

According to Ben Eason, the move resulted in the elimination of 8 or 9 positions, though all downsized staffers were offered jobs in Atlanta. Bodnar says that when his creative services department is fully staffed it will consist of 24 managers, graphic designers, and layout artists performing the advertising design, page composition, and layout for the entire chain. Collectively, the department will churn out 400 to 450 pages per week for a combined circulation of 360,000.

“The critical issues are how you communicate your customers needs and expectations in a remote environment to your creative services people,” says Eason. “A lot of people (ad reps) just hover over the designers. It works, but it drives the designer off the wall and pulls the ad rep off the street.”

The company is in the process of outfitting all of its advertising staff with digital cameras to facilitate clearer communication between reps and designers. Bodnar says it is also placing more emphasis on ad reps articulating their clients’ needs in writing.

This is not the first time the chain has produced its papers from Atlanta. When the Tampa Weekly Planet and Creative Loafing Charlotte papers launched in the late ’80s, CL used fax, phone and overnight delivery to design the papers’ templates, shipping them from Atlanta to their respective printers.

“As crude as it was, it gave us a consistent level of quality for lower costs,” says Eason.

“The technology wasn’t there back then,” notes Bodnar. “But with the Internet and other software, we now have the ability to do it.”

“This thing is not for everybody,” says Eason. “It’s not a trend in the industry. If you have a tight geography like we do, it gives us a lot of leeway.”

The chain has also consolidated its printing by region, with its two North Carolina papers sharing a printer in Fayetteville, N.C., and the two Florida papers sharing one in Gainesville, Fla. Eason cites a paucity in regional printers capable of handling larger tabloid papers. Partly as a result, and to save costs, the chain has shrunk from a 54-inch web to a 50 inch.

“At the end of the day,” says Eason, “it’s all about maintaining high quality standards, and it’s a lot easier to do it in one location.”

John Dicker is a freelance writer based in New York City.