It’s possible that as they leafed through the pages, they didn’t realise that they were decidedly thinner than they once were. If this is indeed the case, then publishers owe their printer and its high-tech presses a debt of gratitude.
Publishers are increasingly creating lighter magazines to save on paper and mailing costs. That a consumer might not notice would have been inconceivable in the past. But print technology has progressed to the point where choosing to print your title on lighter paper is no longer necessarily a sacrifice of quality or reader experience. How much longer this can be maintained if publishers keep dropping the stock weights, though, is debatable.
The big savings for dropping the paper weight for a magazine come in the mailing and in the cost of the paper, according to Andrew Jones, managing director of Stephens & George.
"This is becoming more frequent," he reveals. "If a publisher drops, for example, from 90gsm to 80gsm, there would be a saving of around 12% regarding paper costs. But publishers should realise this does not equate to 12% saving of the whole printing costs."
The real savings come in the mailing costs. Darren Coxon, managing director at Pensord, agrees.
"The driver initially was paper price inflation, but in more recent times the drive has been a result of increasing mailing costs," he explains. "The increases in mailing costs have been significant in the past 2-3 years, with many publishers seeing increases of more than 20% in 2012. Many state that the cost of distribution is now greater than the cost of print and paper combined. This is a big threat to the magazine market."
In the past, the technology to print on lower stock weights was, arguably, not up to the task: tearing and stretching of paper and show-through of inks were common.
Back then, concedes UK sales director at Heidelberg Jim Todd, web presses probably had the edge in coping with lighter stocks. But he says sheetfed presses have caught up, so that both technologies now handle lighter stocks much better than before.
"Historically, it was easier to run lighter stocks on web presses than on sheetfed. However, our latest sheetfed technology (XL) enables the running of lighter stocks at consistent production speed from the pile. The use of Cutstar makes it even easier," he explains.
Chris Scully, KBA UK sales director for sheetfed presses, says it’s a similar story for KBA. "We’ve seen many printers use web grade papers very successfully on their sheetfed presses," he reveals. "The latest-generation KBA machines have superior air controls throughout the press and Sensoric In-Feed System (SIS) to ensure Minimum Check-Out with smooth transport and delivery of very light stocks at speed."
This is not to say problems cannot still occur with both sheetfed and web-fed presses if attention isn’t paid to adapting the print process.
"The entire web press system must be specifically designed and equipped for light stocks, from the roll supply all the way to folder or finishing line. Precise, automatic tension-control devices and high-performance drive systems are the foundation," says John Dowling, a director of engineering and R&D at Goss International.
As for sheetfed, Pensord’s Coxon says it’s hitting publishers’ requirements for the final look of the mag that can present issues: "The biggest concern is that the magazine market tends to print on coated papers and likes a good gloss or silk finish. These coatings on both sides of the sheet make up a fair proportion of the weight, leaving incredibly thin paper thickness. Publishers then like to have heavy ink coverage. As the paper is then subject to water, chemistry and ink on both sides of the sheet in one pass, we have to manage the process very carefully to avoid paper stretch or shrinkage between colours causing mis-register.
"It’s fair to say, though, that machine manufacturers such as Heidelberg have made huge technological advances over time to handle much lighter weight stocks, including vacuum-driven feed-boards, which have been revolutionary."
Another potential issue that caused problems in the past, but has largely been conquered, is show-through, where the content of one side of the sheet showed through to the other. Scully says there are still issues with this that printers have to bear in mind.
"A certain amount of show-through is inevitable with thinner stocks, which is why colour-control devices generally have black backing," he says. "If the stock is the correct shade of white and brightness – that is, to the tolerances given in the ISO 12647-2 document – there should be no impact on colour reproduction and hitting the numbers. However, the show-through from the previous side could affect the appearance of a colour. If the stock is not of a standard shade, then this will have a negative impact on the colour range that can be reproduced."
Mark Stephenson, sales manager for digital solutions at Fujifilm, says these issues were why lighter stocks were front of mind in the development of the Jet Press 540W. "One of the key developments Fujifilm has been working on for its digital inkjet Jet Press 540W is an ink that is particularly compatible with lighter, less opaque stocks," he says. "Our Vividia inks penetrate the paper to a lesser degree than standard inks, which results in less show-through, faster drying and greater dimensional stability on lighter stocks."
However, there are other ways around the problem, without resorting to special inks, according to some. Matt Rockley, product executive at Heidleberg, says most magazine printers optimise their print production process by ‘utilising under-colour removal’, which involves ink reduction without sacrificing image quality. He says this enables the image on the sheet to be printed using less ink, with no effect to the print quality, and also offers improved drying times."
He adds that paper stretch can also be combated at the pre-press stage through a simple software application that allows the user to compensate for the movement in the material used.
Just as some adjustment may be needed at the pre-press stage, Coxon says you may want to keep a close eye on things in post-press too. "Many modern folders, binders and stitching machines use air to pick up sheets and sections, and it takes time to find the right levels and accessories to ensure that only single sheets are picked up and sections can be opened," he says.
Print is pretty geared up to the lighter weights being requested by publishers, then, with optimum quality and performance possible if the printer is on its game. But what if the paper weights were forced down even further? Most agree it would be the sheetfed printers that would struggle most.
Julian Long, national key account manager at Arjowiggins Graphic, says web presses can handle lighter grammages, as the paper tends to have mechanical fibre in it to improve strength on the reel.
Both Jones and Coxon agree that web has the edge in terms of pushing stocks lighter. As to how light, Goss’s Dowling says that the continuous paper reel means paper can go ridiculously thin.
"Web presses can generally print on lighter stocks than sheetfed presses, as the continuous paper reel eliminates some of the mechanical challenges of manipulating individual sheets of paper," he says. "Goss web presses routinely print on paper as delicate as 18 pounds (known commonly as ‘Bible stock’ or ‘onion skin’). Goss web offset packaging presses have printed high-quality process colour on plastic film as thin as 9 microns."
Heidelberg’s Todd, however, warns that on web presses, "the effect of tension while drying creates flutes in the dry product more so on lighter stocks".
S&G’s Jones also questions whether magazine publishers would drop too far because of the compromises on the print. "The quality could be compromised, which could prove costly for the publisher," says Jones. "Opacity and reproduction can also become an issue with lighter papers."
There is also the issue that even at the current levels, there are still risks in using the lighter stock. Then you have to consider reader perception: make the product too lightweight and the reader feels short-changed and soon stops buying.
Hence, printers do offer alternatives to dropping the weight further. Pagination can obviously drop, but this is something both printer and publisher would try to avoid. Instead, Coxon says Pensord gives the magazine a health check to see where costs can be cut, including elements such as data cleansing. Jones says assisting publishers to move to a more economic pagination, such as divisibles of 16 for A4 publications, is another way of reducing cost without reducing paper weights.
But useful alternatives though these may be, they often just don’t bring the immediate savings publishers need and that a drop in paper weight brings. Thankfully, the technology – be it web or sheetfed – has adapted, so the quality sacrifices of the past are no longer a threat if the printer is on top of their game. But what if the weights were to drop even further en masse? It appears that both sheetfed and web-fed printers would struggle, albeit in different ways.
But then again, perhaps printers and the manufacturers would simply have to, once again, react and adapt. They have, after all, done it once before to great success. There’s no reason they can’t do it again.