Coming soon: A new size and shape for some American newspapers

Ready for a radical redesign of your daily print newspaper, my fellow dinosaurs? A new press system that would produce a compact, sectioned print edition has been on the market for nearly three years now.

So far, there have been no takers (and that's a story in itself). But industry sources tell me that the considerable potential savings and  punishing newsprint price increases will lead to the adoption of so-called "three-arounds" in at least a few places by the end of the year.

I learned of the the technology last fall when Jim Gore and Mark Huck of Pressline Services stopped by during a round of Florida sales calls. They believe they have developed the pressroom equivalent of a better mousetrap and expressed plenty of frustration that the many nibbles from top companies had not resulted in a sale.

"We have a lot of people who say they want to go second," Gore said, "but no one wants to be first."

In January, the pair told me they had better prospects in 2011. Last week, Gore e-mailed, "Working on it, will let you know when we seal the deal."

So what is the three-around and what would papers printed that way look like? Essentially it is a way to retrofit existing presses so that plate cylinders print three sheets in a single revolution, rather than two. For fuller tech detail, see Pressline's explanation here.

The "three-around" newspaper prototype is narrower and shorter than a broadsheet, taller than a tabloid, and has multiple sections.

The result, shown to me in a prototype created for the Chicago Tribune, is cousin to the tabloid or Berliner formats, but different too -- not as squat as a tabloid or as skinny as a Berliner.  Most notably it can easily be split into two, three, four or six sections  -- defusing the objection that American readers are uncomfortable with compact formats that only one person at a time can read.

There are several potential advantages, as explained by the Pressline sales team and seconded by Chuck Moozakis, the knowledgeable editor-in-chief of Newspapers & Technology.

  • Since the pages are a third smaller, it will yield substantial newsprint savings. The three-around also produces 50 percent more copies per hour, allowing some reduction in pressroom work force and possibly fewer presses.
  • After years of trimming the size of the physical paper, many American papers are awkwardly narrow and cannot go further with the web width of existing press configuration. Hence the potential appeal of getting much smaller (and more gracefully proportioned) in a single step.
  • With the drain of advertising, especially during the early days of the week, many newspapers now have a heft problem -- or in some cases run bigger-than-necessary sections padded with house ads. The Tribune prototype had a substantial feel and when folded over twice it would be a solid package in a polybag. Not entirely coincidentally, folded in half, the three-around has the shape and is just slightly bigger than an iPad's horizontal display.
  • It has color capability on all fronts and most inside pages.

To my eye, the Tribune prototype both looked good and had the air of a serious news report with attractive displays on every section front, and featured content or an ad on the back of each section.

Joe Knowles, associate managing editor for presentation at  the Tribune, oversaw the prototype in November 2008.

"It would be an adjustment for readers," he said, "but down the road, I think smaller will be better ... It's quite handsome, especially compared to our tabloids, which have a pretty square page."

What's the hang-up, then?

Installing the Pressline system or a similar offering from Goss "is not an insignificant capital investment," Moozakis told me, "and it helps if you have at least one press you can use while the others are retrofitted" over a period of several months. In the climate of 2009-2010, rustling up the money for any big capital investment was difficult, but at least some companies now have available cash.

"But the bigger issue," he added, "is that newspapers are afraid to do anything different."

Advertisers might object that a full-page ad or fractional is much smaller than it used to be and try to bargain down the price.

Readers might associate a compact format with a blaring tabloid sensibility, though that proved to be a non-issue when the Independent and other quality British newspapers went to smaller formats mid-decade.

A publisher adopting the system would definitely save money running full-page ads units and dominant photos smaller, but might choose to add pages so the news hole does not fall by a third.

Moozakis mentioned that there is also an alternative, less expensive press retrofitting technology that aims at the same savings. The so-called "stitched sectionalized tabloid" is being offered by the Swedish firm Tolerans. It, too, has attracted interest but not yet sales in the U.S.

As design consultant Mario Garcia wrote in a 2005 paper, American papers seem to be in an extended period of "contemplation" about smaller formats but very reluctant to move into action. (Garcia is a former faculty member and Poynter national advisory board member).

When Gannett needed to buy new presses for its Lafayette, Indiana, paper several years ago, it converted to the Berliner format. Though the change was successful financially and well-received by readers, Gannett has not converted other papers to the format.

It also occurs to me that the big American news companies have been relentless in pitching to investors that they are proactive digitally, moving past attachment to the print edition first and above all. Would a high-profile investment and makeover of the printed paper seem to signal a backward-looking shift in corporate strategy?

Maybe, but the press reconfiguration is the sort of capital project that is subject to quite exact return-on-investment calculations. Assuming no dire impact on revenues, it would pay for itself in a few short years. And the strong consensus in the industry now is that the print edition will continue to generate the majority of revenues for a lot longer than a few years.

My own hunch is that the three-around configuration is a match to the reduction in run-of-paper advertising and space for news, that is here to stay for most papers. It is a logical experiment that some pioneer will soon undertake.

Update: On August 16, 2011, Gannett announced it would be the first to try the three-around format, with its Cincinnati Enquirer. Rick Edmonds explains why Gannett was first.


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