On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper

This post was going to be all about newspapers, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that before writing about the news I have to explain the paper, specifically the cheap, low quality paper we call newsprint.

It’s a fascinating story which, I think, explains why short-run, nichepaper projects such as Newspaper Club are so deliciously disruptive.

After all there have always been easier formats for getting messages out to people. For decades there was the mimeograph, then the photocopier, and desktop publishing, books, leaflets, A4 newsletters and “vanity-published” books. Rarely did the newspaper form get a look-in on anything other than, well, news.

To understand why that is, we should consider the trade-offs. This involves a graph, with no numbers, but stay with me, please.

For simplicity, let’s imagine there are two costs: the variable cost of the raw material – paper – and the fixed cost of the presses and equipment needed to print on it. My chart shows two scenarios for those combined costs depending on the volume of copies required.

The green line is a traditional short-run desktop publishing set-up. The barrier to entry is low – maybe just a few hundred pounds for a PC and an inkjet or laser printer. Or a visit to a local copyshop. And since every instance is created afresh using tiny dots of ink, it makes no difference if every page you print is unique.

The downside? Start cranking out the pages and the costs go up steeply. You can’t print onto just any paper: it’s 80 GSM minimum, and specially coated or the printer goes on strike, flashing rude messages in LED Morse code. It’s painfully slow, and don’t even get me started on the replacement ink cartridges.

It’s a low fixed cost, high variable cost model.

The red line is mass production. Picture a state-of-the-art web offset printing plant, of the kind TV journalists are forced to stand before as penance every time a newspaper beats them to a major story. Traditionally running a job in one of those will set you back thousands before you print a single copy. But once underway it can rapidly churn out passable results from giant rolls of dead-cheap paper – high fixed cost, low variable cost.

The difference is in the paper.  Newsprint is thin, it tears easily, it isn’t even white, more like a greyish colour, and the ink comes off on your hands. Amazingly all that is a price worth paying in return for cheapness at large scale, as is the huge cost of the specialised equipment needed to print onto it.

The dotted line marks the point at which those models cross over, where you’re printing so many copies, or printing so often, that cheap paper beats cheap hardware. To the right of that dotted line newsprint makes financial sense – which is why daily and weekly news comes to us on newsprint while monthly glossies and direct mailshots don’t.

But this is where economics meets emotion. As the most efficient medium for a certain class of messages, newsprint has acquired its own unique affordances, special qualities that suggest how we are to interact with it. There’s a powerful tension in the affordances of newsprint that combines importance with urgency.

“My message is so big,” newsprint says, “that it must be conveyed to you by means of a massive, multi-million pound printing press.” It has weight, it has authority.

Yet it is never ponderous, because the paper is impermanent. It is easily crumpled and ripped: “I won’t be here for long, you’d better read me while you can.”

Thus newspapers demand our immediate attention in ways that mere books, for all their refinement and beauty, never can. Set aside a book and you can return to it tomorrow. Cast aside a newspaper and it will be recycled, or used as fish-and-chip wrapping.

To create a newspaper is to tell the reader, “I made this really big difficult thing, even though I know you’re going to throw it away. And I will do the same again tomorrow. That’s how much I love you.”

These affordances are deeply engrained. A newspaper that’s printed on stock that’s too thick, or too white, feels wrong – like a counterfeit banknote.

And that’s why a short-run newspaper is such a wonderful thing. It shouldn’t exist and so just by being there it draws us in. Technology may shift the red line on my chart downwards, but our expectations lag behind the changing economics. In the gap between economics and emotion, hyperlocal, niche interest and even friends-and-family papers are set to surprise us.

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