Alternatives Not Immune to the 50-Inch Web

Many AAN papers face size reduction as daily-owned printers cut presses.

As daily presses across the country reduce the size of their papers to offset the rising cost of newsprint, many alternative papers are also making the cut.

An informal survey of more than 25 AAN papers indicated that most alternative weeklies have not been affected by the transition to smaller web presses. However, a handful of publishers have been asked to consider trimming their paper size, and several others have already agreed to make the switch.

Among those in the latter category are the City Papers of Philadelphia and Baltimore (no affiliation) and NewMass Media (the Hartford Courant-owned Advocate Newspapers). All three said the web presses they use will be cut from 54 to 50 inches, the new industry standard for dailies. Although their papers must be redesigned to suit the smaller format, the publishers are optimistic about the changes.

“It’s always unnerving to see the size of your paper reduced,” said Philadelphia City Paper Publisher Paul Curci, who has lived through four redesigns. “But I’ve also been doing this long enough to know that readers adjust.”

Other publishers, such as Sally Crane MacPhail of Columbus Alive and Sioux Watson of Independent Weekly, are less than thrilled by the prospect of cutting an inch off their papers.

Watson said her daily-owned printer — which she claimed has one of the fastest, least expensive, most technically-advanced presses in her area — will be cutting its web to 50 inches in next year’s first quarter. She believes that cutting an inch from a 13.5-inch tabloid results in a “boxy” and “ugly” product that closely resembles Parade Magazine.

“We don’t want to go there!” Watson stated. “The printer’s argument is this: they will pass the savings on to us. But with paper cost inevitably going up, it will not so much end up being a ‘cost saving’ maneuver but a ‘cost avoidance’ maneuver.”

Switching to a commercial printer isn’t a viable option, according to Watson, since they tend to be slower and more expensive than her daily. For instance, one printer told her he couldn’t run more than 48 pages in a single run and would have to fold two sections together for a paper exceeding that size.

MacPhail faces a similar dilemma.

“I could see no advantage in shifting all our specs and redoing all our ads to fit the 50-inch format, nor do I think it is an appealing size for a tab. It’s practically square!” she stated. “[The Gannett-owned printer] pleaded that it would cost us less money for printing because less paper would be used. Not worth it to us.”

According to last year’s financial standards survey of AAN members, printing costs account for nearly 30 percent of the average alternative weekly’s expenses. In addition, paper prices have been extremely volatile in recent years and have increased sharply in the last few months.

The price of paper has seesawed for the past three years, reaching $625-a-ton in Sept. 1998 and dropping to $450 in May 1999, according to Bob Heinen, president of Embarcadero Publishing Company, a commercial printer owned by Palo Alto Weekly. And after the third hike in 18 months, prices are back above $600 this month, Heinen said.

Notwithstanding the financial benefits of reducing a newspaper’s size, many AAN publishers are wary. They suspect that tabloids will bear the brunt of the impact of the new, smaller presses.

When a broadsheet publication makes the adjustment from a 54-inch web to 50 inches, the newspaper is trimmed vertically, reducing the arm-width needed to hold the paper wide open. By contrast, a tabloid making the same transition is forced to lop off an inch horizontally. >From a design perspective, the change can be dramatic, forcing art directors to alter layouts and fonts to accommodate the smaller size.

Even those who are enthusiastic about the money their paper will save because of the cut — generally estimated by publishers to be between six and nine percent — admit that the 50-inch web is as small as a tab should go.

“Visually, everyone is going to have to look at the way they are designing their papers,” Baltimore City Paper Publisher Don Farley said. “The type of reputation we have is that we’re visually-appealing papers.”

Dailies are making the change to a smaller press in record numbers, following industry leaders such as The Washington Post and the Miami Herald. The Newspaper Association of American reports that 75 percent of daily papers have either made the change or plan to make the change at some point in the future.

Unfortuntately, alternative newspapers that are printed by their local daily don’t have many options. If the daily decides to move to a smaller web press, the alternative must either accept the change or find a new printer.

Commercial printer Heinen doesn’t consider that to be much of a dilemma. He noted that unlike their daily-owned brethren, commercial printers are typically privately-owned, independent businesses.

“Those big metro presses have an advantage. They’re larger and faster,” Heinen said. “[But] you’re in bed with the devil when you print with the metro presses. You’re putting money back into their coffers.