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:


Anonymous said...

I remember the ad - a roll of toilet paper and very negative commentary about the character of a company that would use uncoated paper to distribute advertising "sold" on coated paper...Gruner & Jahr was the primary target after moving Family Circle to SCA+ and off of Champion LWC. Unfortunately, G&J folded after getting heat from advertisers and Champion regained a portion of the business. The top Sales & Marketing guy at Verso today was a junior sales rep at Champion in 1996 and it would be of little surprise to learn that he is behind the current campaign. Guess if you can't sell your product on its own merits, you should just trash your customers for choosing somebody else's product.

Anonymous said...

My plant ran a head to head test a couple months ago between a common brand coated groundwood #5 and an SCA. We found that the calipers "thicknesses" were within .0002", opacity was identical, and the SCA was 4 points brighter.

We expected to lose some of the definition in the image when we switching from the cgw to the sca due to the lack of coating. (For the lamens, the lack of coating on an SCA typically allows the ink to bleed into the paper fibers more which lends to a less defined dot on the paper surface.) When we switched to the SCA we switched we found an acceptable loss in dot definition that was more than made up for by the cost savings of the SCA.

Now for the down and dirty of SCA. Good luck finding a truckload before August. Some mills are on allocation only through December! This market is super tight. Tighter than coated groundwood. And if SCA's market can sustain heftier price increases than that of the coated ground wood market than you can expect that differential in the pricing to narrow and the cost savings might not be worth the albeit minor loss of image definition.

There are slated price increases on both SCA and CGW markets and the SCA increase has more legs to stand on than CGW. Should the SCA market sustain the increase and CGW fail there would be barely any cost savings between the two and make the entire argument invalid in my opinion.

CGW paper manufacturers are cranky. I get that way when someone sticks their hand into my cookie jar too!