Why we messed with the comics: George Rodrigue

November 14, 2018

Why we messed with the comics: George Rodrigue

Our recent decision to merge Diversions into our Sports section has prompted a few questions from readers. Mostly along the lines of, “Why on Earth would you do such a thing?”

The short answer is, we thought this was necessary in order to get papers out to readers on time.

The full answer involves a fascinating discussion of newspaper printing technology.

Our plant on Tiedeman Road contains four of the best presses in the United States. They’re American-made Goss Colorliners, built by Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s the same company that built the first space shuttle.

Those presses each can produce up to 63,000 copies of The Plain Dealer per hour. Doing so requires intricate and precise adjustments of timing and tension, as the paper shoots through the presses at 27 mph. Even the atmosphere must be strictly regulated, at 55 percent humidity, to keep the paper from drying out and cracking.

The paper we use is called newsprint, and it arrives by truck and by boxcar, in huge rolls. When production started in 1994, we were using 32-pound newsprint, 55 inches wide. That was the paper our presses were designed for.

Over time, newsprint manufacturers learned to make thinner paper that could hold ink as well as thicker stock did. Today, we use 27.6-pound newsprint, which is approximately 13 percent thinner than our older newsprint. We also have switched to 44-inch wide paper, 20 percent narrower than what we started with.

We buy paper by the ton, so both those changes saved us money, which allowed us to hold down costs to readers compared to what we might have had to charge. But those changes also reduced the tear strength of our newsprint, which made it more vulnerable to ripping while running. That’s called a “web break,” and it stops the presses for 15 to 30 minutes whenever it happens.

To prevent web breaks, we reduced our press speed. We ran at 53,000 impressions per hour, 16 percent below normal. But this meant that it took 16 percent longer to print the paper. That’s a problem, because many of our readers expect us to deliver the paper before 6 a.m. And we can’t start the presses any earlier without missing important sports scores and, occasionally, major breaking news.

That leaves one other way to reduce web breaks: avoiding sections containing only four pages. As thicker sections travel through the presses, they are less likely tear. We used to have four-page comics sections on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On those days, we’ve merged Diversions with the Sports section. We haven’t cut anything. We’ve just arranged the pages differently.

It’s not an ideal solution. To the extent that it’s an inconvenience to readers who love the comics and the puzzles, we realize that, and we apologize. But this still looks like the best solution available. It lets us get more fresh news into more papers that will be delivered more reliably to more readers.

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