In my previous column, I discussed the file formats commonly used to provide photographs and other artwork to journalists. But what if you need to distribute documents—press releases, white papers, backgrounders, studies or other reports that include text and graphics? The goal here is to offer the information in a way that replicates the original format as closely as possible. In addition, files should be reasonably compact and readable by the maximum number of recipients. Depending on the situation, you may want the document to be easily editable, or you may want to restrict the ability to make changes.
Here’s a look at the best formats for doing the job:
PDF. Short for”Portable Document Format,” PDF was originally created by Adobe Systems as a way to exchange and distribute documents with complex formatting. It has two big advantages. First, it’s ubiquitous: Numerous applications can create PDF files, and anyone with the free Adobe Reader software can view them. Second, the format can replicate pretty much anything you see on a printed page.
The biggest downside is that the files can become bloated, especially if they’re heavy with photos or other graphics. The key is to “optimize” the file — that is, use your PDF-authoring software to minimize file size. You can optimize the document for viewing on the web, which converts artwork to low-res JPEG images, or optimize it for print, which uses higher resolution with a corresponding increase in file size. If you plan to attach a PDF to an email, you should probably use a low quality setting, but regardless of the settings, you should preview the document in Adobe Reader to ensure that it looks OK.
The other issue with PDF is that the files are not easy to edit. Depending on your intention, this may or may not be a good thing. Most PDF-authoring programs give you the option to set permissions so that content in the file cannot be copied, extracted, edited or printed. But even if you allow these actions, the end user will need a program such as Adobe Acrobat Standard or one of its competitors to edit the document.
Bottom line: PDF is an ideal format for distributing formatted documents. It’s not so great if you want the recipient to re-use the contents.
Microsoft Word. Given the popularity of Microsoft Office, Word’s .doc and .docx formats are also good options for distributing documents. They’re reasonably compact, and unlike PDF, files can be easily edited by recipients. You don’t necessarily need Microsoft Office to create or edit these documents — virtually any word processor can do so, including free open-source packages such as LibreOffice.
.doc was the native Word format prior to the introduction of Microsoft Office 2007. One disadvantage is that the files can include macros, custom-written programs that live within the document. Macros can perform many useful actions, and I rely on them heavily in my own work. However, macros can contain viruses or other malware, so opening a .doc file from an unknown source creates the risk that your computer will be infected.
Beginning with Office 2007, Microsoft introduced two new formats: .docx and .docm. Docx is the new standard native format, and unlike .doc, the files cannot contain macros. For that, you need .docm.
If you want to minimize the anxiety factor in your recipients, .docx is preferable to .doc. The downside is that users with older versions of Word won’t be able to open the files unless they have a conversion utility.
Another option is Rich Text Format (.rtf), which is also widely supported. As with .docx, RTF files cannot include macros. However, a malicious user can create a .doc file with macro viruses, and then change the extension to .rtf. So the recipient could be fooled into thinking that the file is virus-free, and then open it with Word.
Other Office formats. Other Office formats such as .xls/.xlsx and .ppt/.pptx are also popular distribution options depending on the nature of the information. .xls/.xlsx are the native formats for Microsoft Excel, so they’re ideal for distributing spreadsheets or other tabular data. The same caveats regarding .doc and .docx apply here: .xls is an older format that can include macros, whereas .xlsx is macro-free.
.ppt/.pptx are the native formats for Microsoft PowerPoint. As a rule of thumb, I’d advise converting PowerPoint presentations to PDF before distributing them. The files tend to be smaller, and your recipients are more likely to have Adobe Reader than a program that can read PowerPoint format directly.