The thud of the newspaper landing at your doorstep could be getting a little quieter.


The Los Angeles Times has begun printing test runs of a lighter-weight paper in an effort to cut costs. It's a step being taken by newspapers across the country as the price of newsprint has shot up.


"A very small percentage of our production has been produced already on the lighter paper and delivered to customers," said Michele Manzo-Lembo, director of operations for the Times' downtown printing facility, one of three plants. "It involves a lot of testing and evaluating different paper types. We also have to be sensitive to any impact on our customers or advertisers. Is there any rub-off, how well does the paper absorb ink, how the opacity is?"


Newsprint prices have been on the rise for several years, and so a growing number of publishers have been switching to lighter 45 gram-per-square-meter paper because it yields about 8.4 percent more paper per roll than the traditional 48.8-gram paper. That means lower fuel, shipping, handling and delivery costs for the same output.


Newsprint accounts for around a fifth of the cost of printing newspapers.


The lighter paper is particularly attractive to Tribune Co., which owns the Times. The Chicago-based media company last week reported a 35.4 percent dip in fourth-quarter net income, attributed in part to a 15 percent increase in the cost per ton of newsprint. Tribune also said it expected its operating expenses for 2005 to rise about 2 percent over last year, in part because of higher newsprint prices.


The Times was the first Tribune paper to test the 45-gram newsprint, and its initial success prompted the Chicago-based company to test it across all of its papers, Manzo-Lembo said.


A delicate hand


The tests don't require any new equipment but do require fine-tuning of press machinery. It takes a delicate touch to set the paper tension and speed at a level that doesn't create breaks as a continuous loop of paper flies through the machines. At the same time, the water and ink balance must be adjusted to prevent it from bleeding through the pages and rubbing off.


Still, it can be done, said Warren Dow, plant manager at Southwest Offset Printing & Graphics Inc., which prints the Daily Breeze, a Western edition of The New York Times and several other newspapers.


"The trend is always going to be toward reduced paper roll width and lighter paper because paper is our most substantial raw material cost," he said. "Printing on super-thin paper can be done, for example with phone books. Once you get it dialed in, it's a home run."


Edward Atorino, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners who tracks Tribune shares, said large publishing groups, including Knight-Ridder Inc. and Gannett Co., had already shifted some newspapers to the lighter paper.


"Most large and small newspapers are all doing it," he said. "They're all trying to figure it out. Knight-Ridder has been using lightweight paper for some time. There's some printability and breaking problems. But the savings were significant. Their newsprint costs were moderate compared with some other companies."


Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said that for competitive reasons the company won't reveal how much paper it uses. But a source at a paper manufacturer that has periodically supplied the Los Angeles Times puts the amount the Times uses at around 350,000 tons per year.


A significant factor driving newspapers to the lighter paper is maneuvering by North American paper manufacturers. Manufacturers, suffering low prices for years, have been closing plants to push production closer to capacity and tighten up the paper supply, driving prices up.


"Most of the mills have been losing money for so long on the heavier grade, they're shutting down high-cost plant capacity," said an executive at a Canadian paper manufacturer that supplies U.S. newspapers. "So now production rates are going up, and at above 95 percent of capacity, you typically start to see prices increasing."


Citing ongoing business relationships, the manufacturing executives declined to speak for attribution.


Manufacturers have been offering incentives on the lighter paper to publishers, pointing out that while each roll of the light paper yields 8.4 percent more printable area, the price is only 6.8 percent higher than the 48.8-gram paper.


The manufacturers don't simply respond to the newsprint price fluctuations, they also initiate them, according to Jennifer McDonald, vice president of paper purchasing at Southwest.


"It can be sort of a game," she said. "For a long time, prices were really low, so it was hard for mills to operate. Now that prices are going up, they won't be losing money. Another major problem is fuel prices. For a long time, they swallowed that. Then they started passing it along to the purchasers."

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