As the ability in the digital-production process to determine whether what’s on the screen will look like what’s on paper becomes more predictable, the spotlight is turning to paper, which turns out to be more variable than it should be.

"There is a disconnect between the paper manufacturers and the print buyers," says Trish Wales, a member of IdeAlliance’s Print Predictability Paper Task Force,which has been meeting for most of the past year on this subject. "Paper categorizes itself in a way that was successful in the past, but with the advancement of print technology coupled with the increase in print imports over the last few years, it gets really confusing."

And David Steinhardt, CEO of IdeAlliance, adds that the myriad terms, ranging from color to brightness to weight, used to classify papers are defined in so many different ways, it’s often difficult to discern whether one paper manufacturer’s number-3 grade will behave similarly to another’s number-3 paper. "The classifications are so broad that you can’t determine that this grade of paper will meet your specific needs," Steinhardt says. "So we’ve got to come up with something clear and concise."

The task force is comprised of members representing the publishing, paper, printing and advertising industries. The goal, says Wales, is to come up with a uniform system for characterizing paper that is used both within the U.S. and internationally, since about 30 percent of all paper used in this country is now imported.

Acknowledging Print Buyers
Wales says IdeAlliance’s paper task force has come up with a proposed model that would classify paper in three ways using universally accepted color, number and scientific test method descriptors. "When you look at the classifications that were previously developed, they were developed for the paper industry by grades 1,2,3,4, etc.," Steinhardt says. "We want to come up with something that is from the print buyers’ point of view."

Jerry Faust, director of quality for Time Inc.’s central production department, says a more unified characterization would give publishers a better understanding of how the final product will print on press. "From a Time Inc. standpoint, we have a core set of paper suppliers we use because we know their paper grades well, so it won’t change how we buy paper for our magazines," he says. "Where it will help is within our consumer marketing and custom marketing divisions, where they do a lot of ad hoc jobs."

Wales and Steinhardt say the task force is committed to developing methods to make it easier to classify paper sooner than later, but has no set timeframe established. "It is progressing along quickly," Wales says. "This is not a multi-year effort. We’re looking to do this in a fairly short period of time."

But challenges remain.To date the paper industry has been only somewhat receptive to developing a new scheme for paper classification, says Wales, who worked in the paper industry for 30 years. Convincing all manufacturers to change could be difficult, she says. "The paper industry is going through a lot of consolidations and mergers, and they’re more focused on cost reduction at this point than anything else," Wales adds. "But we’re not trying to change how they do things. We’re not trying to change attributes and we’re not trying to say that gloss is better than matte. We’re just trying to create a value system that makes it easier for everyone."

It’s a Subtle Science
There are also scientific challenges, according to Steinhardt and Wales. "There is a technical challenge in that the instrumentation available is not up to the task of measuring some of the attributes that need to be measured, such as optical brightness and its effect on paper," Wales says. "And there are still some standard test methods that need to be developed. And once you develop them, you have to show people how to use them."

In the meantime, Steinhardt says IdeAlliance’s paper supply chain committee, GRACoL, is working with the paper task force in an effort to improve overall print predictability.

"One of the issues we’re addressing is coming up with a methodology that is simple enough that everyone can use it," he says.

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