Wednesday, June 19, 2013

17 Years Later, Using SCA in Magazines Can Still Stir Controversy

Early one fall morning in 1996, the magazine production director heard the phone ringing as soon as he walked into his office.

“Who are these assholes?” the publisher on the other end of the phone growled. “And are we buying any paper from them?”


“You’d better take a look at today’s Wall Street Journal, then tell me who Champion Paper Company is and why they’re calling us liars.”

The production director soon learned that his counterparts at other publishing companies were getting the same grilling from their publishers that morning. The controversial Champion ad warned advertisers to watch out for sleazy magazine-advertising sales reps, who promised their ads would be on glossy paper when in fact they would be printed on supercalendered (SCA) paper.

(Editor’s note: If you have a digital copy or scan of that ad, please email it to so that I can publish it. I would be happy to give you credit – or not, if you prefer.)

The campaign backfired, with some publishers dropping Champion as a supplier, and defiant Champion executives eventually hitting the road for an apology tour. International Paper bought the company in 2000.

Seventeen years later, the makers of coated-groundwood (CGW) paper are still seeking advertisers’ help to prevent magazines from switching to less expensive SCA. But their tactics have become less clumsy and far more subtle.

Based on information from unnamed “paper industry sources,” the New York Post reported today that Time Inc. is saving “at least $10 million a year” by switching from CGW to “razor-thin” SCA in its weekly magazines, “unbeknownst to advertisers.” You don’t suppose any of those sources were from companies that make coated paper, do you?

Color reproduction isn’t as good on SCA, and “bleed through” is worse because the paper is thinner, the tabloid quoted the sources as saying.

My fellow paper geeks will recognize the over-generalizations here: For example, color reproduction isn’t always inferior on SCA, and a thin paper doesn’t necessarily have more bleedthrough (or showthrough or strikethrough) than thicker paper.

Traditional coated paper is like a sandwich: The central “meat” layer consists mostly of pulp, which is covered on both sides by a clay-based coating and then run through giant calender rolls to make it smooth and glossy.

With SCA, the meat and bread are all mixed together, but heat and extra pressure in the calender rolls yield a surface similar to that of coated paper. Because the process is less expensive than making coated paper, SCA sells for a roughly 15% discount off of CGW.

SCA does tend to be limper, thinner, and less opaque than CGW of the same weight and to have lower print quality. But the quality gap between CGW and SCA has narrowed greatly to the point that a good SCA can look better than a bad CGW (and I’ve certainly seen plenty of bad CGW in Time Inc.’s flagship TIME magazine in recent years).

Although CGW is the dominant substrate for North American magazines, extensive use of SCA isn’t new to weekly magazines. In fact, by using SCA mostly in the heartland and coated paper on the East and West coasts, Time is following an approach that Newsweek reportedly employed for several years without a peep from the popular press.

Related articles about SCA and coated papers:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mailers Rallying Against Rumored 10% Postage Hike

Mailing-industry leaders fear that the U.S. Postal Service is on the verge of requesting emergency rate increases of up to 10%.

After lying dormant for a couple of years, the multi-industry Affordable Mail Alliance was reorganized on Friday to fend off expected "exigent" (higher than inflation) rate increases for the ailing Postal Service. The group started rallying mailers today to contact members of the USPS Board of Governors, which is rumored to be discussing such rate increases when it meets next week.

The alliance was formed in 2010 when USPS sought to solve its financial problems by sidestepping the inflation-based cap on rate increases for First-Class, Standard, and Periodicals mail. That attempt failed, but this time the Postal Service is in more dire circumstances, perhaps only months from running out of cash.

When the Board of Governors backed down in April from a money-saving plan to curtail Saturday delivery, it asked postal management to examine options for increasing revenue. It specifically mentioned the possibility of exigent increases, especially for supposedly unprofitable classes like Standard flats and Periodicals.

One scenario being discussed among mailers is an exigent increase of 5% to 7% for all market-dominant classes plus an additional 3% for the unprofitable classes. That's on top of the usual inflation-based increase, which could be close to 2% in January.

Annual rate hikes for the market-dominant classes are generally capped by changes in the Consumer Price Index. But the law also has a provision “whereby rates may be adjusted on an expedited basis due to either extraordinary or exceptional circumstances.”

The law, however, does not provide the Postal Regulatory Commission clear guidelines as to what constitutes "extraordinary or exceptional circumstances" justifying a special rate hike.

Mailers have questioned whether exigent rate increases would actually backfire by shaking confidence in USPS and the stability of postage rates, which would accelerate the shift to other media.

In a related matter, the PRC today rejected the Postal Service's proposal to use a one-time "Technology Credit"to justify rate increases, a gambit described in New Postal Incentive Could Backfire for Mailers.

Related articles:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Invitation to Extinction? Newsstand Professionals in an Up-roar

Those of us on the print side of the publishing industry tend to get a bit touchy about comparisons to dinosaurs, which usually come amidst discussions of e-this, digital that, and print-is-dead pronouncements.

Especially touchy are the people responsible for “newsstand” marketing, who are perhaps the most endangered species in the Printosaurus genus.

Ad pages and print subscriptions have stabilized, but newsstand sales keep declining at an annual rate of about 10%. (“Newsstand” is a misnomer because most retail sales of magazine occur at supermarkets and bookstores, with a tiny percentage at actual newsstands. And none occur online.)

So it was a bit surprising when the main trade group promoting U.S. retail sales of magazines chose to illustrate an invitation to its annual dinner with a photo of several large, extinct reptiles. That’s hit a raw nerve for some folks in the newsstand field.

"Is that supposed to show the museum or the dinner's attendees?" one invitee to the IPDA dinner asked.

The depicted dinosaurs are part of a display at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences, where the event is being held. But some people in the business fear they will soon be the ones on exhibit in the Hall of Extinct Species.

Cheer up, folks. Scientists now tell us that not all dinosaurs went extinct. Some survived the great die-off and evolved into what we now call birds.

Survival is possible, but watch out for falling meteors.

Other Dead Tree Edition articles about newsstand sales include: