How's your printing?

Print quality, good or bad, is measurable

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Judging newspaper print quality isn't a subjective undertaking but a matter of determining how well a paper meets a set of industry standards, according to Kevin Conner, quality assurance manager for The Washington Post.

"The key always rests on ink density and color registration. Those are the key components," he said.

Contest entrants with SNPA's annual Print Quality Contest are evaluated on how closely they meet the standards of SNAP, Specifications for Newsprint Advertising Production. These can be measured objectively with tools such as a densitometer for ink density.

Conner has chaired the SNPA contest for 15 years. Conner said SNAP standards not only make for a fair and objective contest, they offer individual publishers a way to judge for themselves how well their printers are doing the job.

A state-of-the-art printing press certainly helps, but the skills needed to make any press perform are paramount.

"No 1, know how to set ink and water balance correctly," Conner said. "No. 2, color registration: Be able to keep all the color pages in perfect register.

"And then, something that's kind of an intangible but extremely important: You need to have a press that's well maintained. These are the factors that are behind good printing. You have a workforce of highly skilled press operators who know their jobs inside and out."

With the rise of outsourcing and multiple papers being printed at centralized plants, more papers can no longer send someone from the newsroom or prepress to check the first papers rolling off the press. Regardless, Conner said someone at the local paper needs to be responsible for quality evaluation as soon as the most recent edition shows up.

"I'm going to be checking how the ink is laid down. I'm going to be looking at that registration and giving instant feedback, looking at it daily."

He noted that national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today are printed at dozens of locations around the country, and their print quality must be as close to standard as possible. Feedback is essential.

Pressroom employees must be well-trained and understand the expectations of the newspaper's publisher, whether the publisher is in-house or out-of-town, a small weekly or large daily, Conner said.

This year's entry form deadline for daily newspapers in the SNPA Print Quality Contest is June 17. Entrants should save four copies of several specified editions during the month of June; they will be told later which editions to submit and will receive feedback from the judges as well as a Product Quality Rating. For information on how to enter, which editions to save  and how the contest works, click here.

High expectations and consistent commitment are reflected in the winners.

"I tend to see the same newspapers printed beautifully year after year after year," Conner said. "There have been a cluster of papers that are always in the top five every single year."

Here are more of Conner's observations:

  • The printer can't save poor prepress work and isn't responsible for doing so. "A press operator can't control how a picture is toned."
  • Because the papers are judged on the same day's editions, sometimes the same photos for national stories will turn up, and so will nationally-placed ads. Print quality differences will also be more obvious.
  • The judging is done on up to 20 pages selected from one edition, and color pages are picked first. For a paper that doesn't have full color, black-and-white pages will be judged on black inking.
  • Beware of over-inking. Conner sees some cases every year.

"When it comes to printing, there is a science to it. There's a methodology. If you follow it, you're going to do well."

Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin and is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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