6 Reasons Entertainment Weekly's Move to Heavier Paper Will Probably Pay Off
In 2009, a struggling Newsweek upgraded its paper stock at an estimated cost of $3 million in a desperate attempt to turn its print business around. It didn't work.
EW's publisher indicated the cost of the EW paper upgrade was in "seven figures," though a Dead Tree Edition analysis ballparks an $800,000 annual hit to the paper, postage, and freight budgets.
So is Entertainment Weekly crazy to try the same trick this year as Newsweek, albeit on a smaller scale? I think not. This situation is different, and the times have changed.
Here are six reasons EW's recently announced paper change may be a smart move:
1. Advertisers: EW "alienated some advertisers," especially in the beauty category, when it moved to unusually light 29# LWC (lightweight-coated) paper a few years ago, a source told the New York Post. Now it is transitioning to 34# paper, which is about 17% heavier.
Sources say Time Inc. worked with some paper suppliers to create a 29# that was relatively bulky and had little "showthrough," but the tradeoff has been low gloss that doesn't give some ads and photos the "pop" that advertisers and designers are looking for. Despite the savings from the light paper, EW's sister title People switched away from the 29# sheet two years ago.
If the move brings an average of just one more ad page into each issue, that alone should cover the cost of the better paper. And having a more substantial, better looking magazine should spill over into newsstand sales, renewal rates, and improved brand perception.
2. The changing role of magazines: The old business model for major consumer magazines was to grab as many eyeballs as possible, even at money-losing subscription rates, to keep ad rates as high as possible. But advertisers no longer subsidize print the way they once did. (EW's ad pages are supposedly down about 14% this year.) They have more efficient ways to find masses of people. Print is now a vehicle for reaching valuable target audiences with more memorable and engaging messages than digital media typically can deliver.
EW might become more profitable by trimming its 1.725-million ratebase so that it can shed some unprofitable circulation. If so, the publisher should invest in upgrading the product in order to counterbalance the loss of circulation in the eyes of the advertising community. Reducing ratebase would be part of a repositioning to higher quality rather than a mere cost-cutting move.
3. The Postal Service: Although Periodicals postal rates on average have increased nearly every year, the per-pound charges have actually decreased, especially this year. Dead Tree Edition estimates that EW now pays less than 16 cents per pound of Periodicals postage, versus more than 20 cents for Newsweek back in 2009.
4. The West Coast: EW probably prints at least 20% of its U.S. copies on the West Coast. My fellow paper geeks say the closest mill that makes 29# LWC is in Minnesota, requiring expensive transport across the Rockies, while one in nearby British Columbia makes lots of 34#. By switching to a mill with lower transport costs, EW might be able to negotiate a 34# price that would virtually eliminate the cost of upgrading its West Coast copies.
5. The Flyover: A favorite trick of big consumer magazines, especially the Time weeklies, is using good paper for the newsstand and in mailed copies going to big ad markets like New York and LA, then putting the cheap stuff into subscribers copies destined for the hinterlands. That would probably limit the cost of the paper upgrade to low six figures, though it might also undercut efforts to win back advertisers and to project a higher-quality image.
6. Advances in paper-making technology: The heavier paper may not be costing EW a dime. My $800,000 estimate assumes that the 34# is just a heavier version of the 29# LWC that EW had been using. But some paper experts point out that the title may actually be switching to SCA++, a high-grade "supercalendered" paper that typically costs 5% to 8% less than equivalent LWC.
"In the end, after factoring in the additional postal and freight costs, I'd guess that there is a nominal [cost] difference to Time by moving EW from a 29# coated to a 34# SCA++," says an executive for a prominent paper broker.
Coated paper is like a sandwich, with pulp in the middle acting as the "meat" and a layer of clay-based coating on each side being the "bread." Supercalendered paper is more like a casserole, with the pulp and clay blended together. It then gets squeezed and polished by heated rollers to give it a smooth surface similar to that of coated paper.
If you're not a paper geek, you may now be saying, "So what?" That's the point: Who cares how the paper is made, as long as it looks good?
Supercalendered is considered a lower grade than LWC because it generally isn't quite as bright, bulky, opaque, or glossy as LWC. But advances in the supercalendering process have closed the gap, to the point where the best 34# supercalendered paper probably looks better than a 29# LWC.