Create Once, Produce Many, or Obey the Content Master

Cross-media publishing, or repurposing, has been talked about ever since the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s. Every year we hear claims from vendors that cross-media publishing is a reality. Usually these vendors are talking about the ability to publish to both print and the web without manual conversion effort. As a simple example, Microsoft Word contains a filter that creates HTML from Word documents. As a more complex example, Quark’s avenue.quark creates XML documents from QuarkXPress pages that are intended for the Vignette StoryServer web publishing system.

But now, cross-media publishing has taken on a greater meaning. Content brands need to be visible in as many venues as possible that attract the right audience. This means not only a profusion of devices, such as Palm Pilots, WAP phones, and television set-top boxes, but also potentially many web sites that attract the desired demographic. For example, a business magazine may want to publish stories to internet devices, but also to have its content appear where business people look on the web, e.g., on an office supplies e-tailer or an online brokerage. The magazine’s production group will need to send each of these venues a file. To further complicate things, several of the venues may need their own versions of the content; for example, the Palm Pilot version may need to be shorter than the print or web browser version.

Cross-media publishing started in the production area – typically a group of people who converted print-format pages to HTML – and gradually infiltrated the editorial area as web adjuncts of publications added web-only content or launched separate web editorial operations. But it can’t go on this way. Editorial operations won’t be able to proliferate at that rate to meet the needs of a growing number of distribution channels.

The solution to this problem was first expressed as “Create Once, Publish Many,” by various people including Paul Zazzera, the CIO of Time, Inc. This means that there should be some technology that lets publishers push a button and have the content magically come out in all the right formats, all automatically.

This was a nice vision, but it can’t work. Different distribution channels call for different versions of content, and those versions can’t be created without editorial intervention. This engenders two important concepts: Create Once, Produce Many, and the idea of the Content Master.

The idea of the Content Master is well known in the music and film industries. In pop music, a band creates a master of a song, and then uses that to create various versions, such as the dance club version (drums and bass mixed louder, more echo), the AM radio version (cut down and with more audio compression), etc. In the film industry, there might be a director’s cut, a theatrical release, and versions for videocassette (different aspect ratio) and airplanes (R-rated scenes edited out). Each of these versions requires manual production work.

The publishing industry is slowly realizing that it should adopt the same ideas in order to serve a growing number of distribution venues, yet editorial processes are not changing to become scalable in this manner. There are many reasons to create content masters. Most importantly, content masters can be archived in a content management system for later production and distribution. A content master can also serve as the “content of record,” for purposes of capturing editorial intent and dealing with legal liability issues.

For centuries, the print version of content served as the content of record – simply because there was no other version. Everyone assumes that this has to be the case in the present era, but if you think about it, it’s not necessary. In the print world, especially that of magazines and newspapers, a single process combines editing for the sake of editorial intent with editing for the sake of copyfitting. It’s possible to capture editorial intent by saving an edited piece of content before it becomes subjected to the layout ax (whether by X-Acto knife or Quark commands), but if that content is never published, there’s no point.

Editorial intent gets compromised when production has to fit copy to a page layout. On the web, and in other formats, this doesn’t happen. As anyone who has written for both print and the web knows, there’s great freedom in being able to make a web article as long or short as you want, and in knowing that production won’t screw up your article for the sake of copyfitting.

For this reason, it makes more sense to have the master version of an article be the same as the web version, not the print version. The print version could be treated as a derivative, just like a Palm Pilot or WAP phone version.

This idea has significant implications for editorial processes and technology. It relegates the creation of print layouts entirely to the print production process on the back end, instead of spanning the entire editorial process from front to back, as it often does now. It also allows content creators to author content in a media-neutral way, for later conversion to multiple output formats.

XML is an ideal technology for supporting cross-media publishing by capturing editorial intent while deferring production decisions. XML allows you to specify the form of content without specifying how it is rendered to an output medium. Editorial people can create content in XML and specify structural elements, like articles, paragraphs, headlines, photo captions, charts, and so on. Then production can render each of those elements for the appropriate output media through various processes. Some of these can be automatic, such as sending a version of the XML file to a syndication service like iSyndicate, which will send the content to other web sites, or they can be manual, such as copyfitting to a Quark layout or creating an abridged version for a wireless device. The XML stylesheet technology, XSL, can support the automatable processes but not the ones that require manual intervention.

The implications of this scheme are fairly radical for print-oriented publishing operations. Figure 1 shows how most traditional publishers have tried to adapt their print processes for web repurposing. In this scheme, content is first laid out in a print-oriented format like Quark. Afterwards, it is converted to HTML and other formats using a mixture of scripts, conversion tools, and onerous manual processes.

This process has two major disadvantages. First, whenever the publisher wants to repurpose content to a new format, it must add a new set of technology and/or manual processes. This is not a scalable activity. Second, the publisher is repurposing a version of the article that does not necessarily reflect editorial intent.

Figure 2 suggests a publishing system architecture that allows for Create Once, Produce Many. Content is created in XML and translated by means of stylesheets to the appropriate output format and, if necessary, sent to the appropriate venue for publishing. Print copyfitting and layout is relegated to one corner of the production process, and most or all of the format conversions can be done automatically and without implementing ad hoc tools or scripts. The architecture allows for scalable repurposing with minimal extra effort and a preservation of editorial intent.

There are no off-the-shelf systems available today that implement the architecture suggested in Figure 2, but they are getting close. It’s possible to implement this architecture with the help of a qualified system integrator. It will never be possible to implement Create Once, Produce Many as easily as publishers first implemented QuarkXPress, but the situation should improve over the next couple of years as XML and content management technologies further pervade the publishing industry. The results will be exciting for publishers with strong content brands, giving them competitive advantage.

GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies offers a proven methodology for content providers of all types that are looking to transform their organizations and infrastructures to cross-media. Click here for more information.

Please contact us for further information on Cross-Media Transformation Strategy engagements.



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