Printing and Design Tips: September 2020, Issue #230

A Snapshot of History On Newsprint

My fiancee bought a handful of used books this week at our favorite thrift store. Particularly during Covid-19, thrift-store-shopping is her favorite thing to do, sometimes twice a day.

Given some of the unique qualities of these books, I thought you might benefit from a description and analysis of one of them.

A Bound Collection of Newspapers

This newspaper book is also one of the largest, heaviest, and most dramatic books I’ve ever seen. At the moment, it has its own table in the hall. It is a bound version of a year’s worth of The Daily Pennsylvanian newspapers (I haven’t counted the issues to make sure all are present, but the book looks to be about 4" thick, and the individual flat newspaper page trim size (this is a broadsheet, not a tabloid) is 14.5" x 23". So, again, it is a huge, heavy book.

The book of newspapers is case bound in green buckram, which Wikipedia defines as follows:

"Buckram is a stiff cotton cloth with a loose weave, often muslin. The fabric is soaked in a sizing agent such as wheat starch paste, glue, or pyroxylin, then dried. When re-wetted or warmed, it can be shaped to create durable firm fabric for book covers, hats, and elements of clothing." (Wikipedia)

Chances are very good that you’ve seen this material before, in libraries going back to when you were in elementary school (for me, that was the ‘60s). Buckram lasts. In the case of this book, it has lasted for 44 years. The date on the bound newspapers is 1976 (my last year of high school).

Here’s Why I Think This Is Interesting

This full year of bound newspapers is heavy. Exceptionally heavy, really. Yet it is a "loose-back" bound book. That is, "the crash," which is the paper-covered-mesh backing placed against the bind edge of the text signatures (which in this case comprises all of the newspapers, which have been sewn together for strength), is not attached to the spine cardboard of the exterior binding case. So the entire weight of the book text (all the newspapers) essentially hangs on hinges, which are the papers attached to the edges of the newspapers that have then been glued to the front and back binders boards and then covered with paper endsheets.

The key concept here is that, in contrast to a "tight-back" case-bound book, a "loose-back" version is not attached to the outer book spine, and this makes the book much easier to open and allows it to lie flat on a table. In this case, that makes the reading experience more pleasurable. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that a tight-back book (in contrast) distributes the weight of the text block (in this case, all the newspapers) across a wider surface area than just the edges of the "book block" attached to the outer binding case.

Moreover (and this is the real purpose of this segment of the article), the book has lasted for almost fifty years. So far. Who knows how long the text will stay bound in the hard cover? This is a clear example of the effects of skill and craftsmanship on book binding. It also shows the durability of "buckram" binding cloth and the binding strength you can achieve by sewing the signatures (in this case the individual newspapers within the case binding).

But what about the durability of the text? The newspapers themselves? Actually, they haven’t weathered the years as well, although they are still in place. They have yellowed with age.

What makes this interesting is that I have a collection of Dickens’ works from the late 1800s in which the text paper is pristine. That’s because the paper in the Dickens’ books is of a higher quality, or more specifically it is alkaline paper (less acidic). In the case of the newspapers, newsprint is mechanically ground paper (as opposed to chemically ground). The wood chips are ground into the liquid paper pulp from which paper is made, and the impurities of the paper (specifically the lignin) raise the acidity of the stock. Over the years, this paper yellows and becomes more brittle faster than alkaline paper (the Dickens’ books) that lasts a lot longer.

The Takeaway

There are actually three takeaways you might remember and apply to your own design and printing work:

1. Consider the binding materials and the binding method, particularly if you want a book to last and tolerate heavy use. Look into buckram (or other fabric, or even leather) as a cloth binding fabric for the highest durability. Consider sewing the signatures for strength. And discuss "tight-back" vs. "loose-back" case binding with your print provider.

2. Newspaper printing is totally different from commercial offset and book printing. First of all, the paper is much thinner (35#, for instance, instead of 50#, 60#, 70# or heavier). It is printed from a roll, not from sheets. That is to keep the paper dimensionally stable. Paper that thin needs to be under tension to travel through the press in a controlled manner (without getting mashed up into a useless ball). It is the tension of the roll of newsprint flying through the press that allows the ink to be precisely placed on the ultra-thin paper.

3. Newspaper printing yields different sized products than commercial offset or book printing. The page size of the newspapers in this book is 14.5" x 23". This particular press, back in the mid-1970s, may have yielded other print sizes (and other newspaper presses may have yielded still more page-size options), but there are a limited number of page sizes a newspaper press will produce.

4. On a newspaper press, most of the whole printing and finishing process occurs on one piece of equipment (or at least on connected machines). That is, it starts with the endless swath of paper coming from rolls (one roll, then another roll, without stopping, due to the "flying paster," which pastes the ending paper from one roll onto the beginning of the next roll). The paper streams through the ink units (black only, or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for printing, and through the drying units (if it is a heatset web; if it is a cold-set web, the ink just seeps into the paper). Then the ribbon of printed paper is folded (at full speed) into collated and trimmed signatures before it reaches the delivery end of the press and finishing equipment. A similar process happens on a web press for book printing, but in this case the press signatures still need to be bound and trimmed. For a broadsheet newspaper (or even a tabloid—i.e., a smaller sheet size), the delivery end of the equipment usually yields a complete, nested, folded, and trimmed newspaper.

5. Likewise, on a newspaper press, you usually cannot place process color on all pages. In fact, the printer usually gives you a handful of options of where you can place color. This will differ from press to press. It depends on the configuration of the press, but there is less flexibility than in sheetfed offset or even commercial web offset work.

And on a larger scale, here are some truths about print in general (in my own opinion):

1. Print has longevity. Someone put the time, interest, and money into case binding all of these issues of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Chances are good that few people have saved anything found on the internet for even a fraction of that time.

2. Print has permanence. Nobody can change the contents of this book. In contrast, a good hacker can change online documents or newsletters.

3. Print exudes a sense of authority and believability. Because of its permanence, inalterability, and longevity, this book makes me assume that its contents are true.

4. Books like this capture a snapshot of history. This is a window into the statewide goings-on during a year in the ‘70s, 44 years ago, in a level of detail no history book could ever capture. For me it brings back the experiences, interests, music, hairstyles, clothing styles, and values of a particular point in my own personal history: my high school years.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]