Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

My newspaper’s black isn’t black enough. What do I do?

Question: My black isn’t black enough. That is to say, I wanted to do a fancy-schmancy reverse for my front cover, a film noir look about two detectives who solved a crime, but when the paper came back from the printer the black background was actually quite grayish. I’m told it has something to do with dot gain. The page proof looked sharp on my computer, just not on news print.

Answer: The answer to getting a smooth, crisp, rich black display on newsprint can be very simple or very complicated.

The simple answer: Ask your printer.

The variables of printing on newsprint are numerous. Quality can depend on the weight and brightness of the newsprint, composition of ink, water acidity, plate and blanket quality, number of copies in the run, prepress production and the characteristics of a particular press. Your printer should know her press well enough to give you the proper workflow to achieve the best quality solid black she can print.

The complicated answer: If the printer doesn’t know how to do this, you will have to figure it out yourself.

Tips and guidelines for complicated answer:

  • Your printed product will never look as good as the digital proof, pdf or production page on your computer screen. Your print product is printed on paper with four layers of ink applied on top of each other. Your computer screen projects three colors of light that are pure, intense and directed straight into the human eye. The reflective colors of the printed page will never reproduce the illumination of the screen. Focus on your printed product and keep print samples of color and design treatments that are successful.
  • Don’t expect the products printed on your press to look like the final product of others. You can compare newspapers and ask what you need to do to yield similar results, but another paper’s workflow, standards and capabilities will usually contain significant differences, ones which your printer cannot duplicate. It is similar to cutting cardboard in a straight line. Both scissors and a utility knife will cut, but a utility knife and a metal straightedge will cut straighter and faster. Focus on your printed product and the tools you have to work with.
  • A large, pure 100 percent black area can cause some press challenges. Sometimes it does not look black enough because a portion of the ink has been absorbed into the paper and loses its intensity, cannot be absorbed further and smears on the surface or prints with whitish strands due to a press blanket that is picking up loose fibers from the newsprint. You can try different/better ink, different/better paper or clean the press. If you have no control over the materials that are used in the operation, you may have to be satisfied that your press can only print a dark gray.
  • “Dot gain” refers to how much a halftone dot grows in diameter when printed. Depending on the press, a halftone dot can grow up to 30 percent when printed on newsprint. Some designers achieve a smoother black by selecting 80, 85, 90, or 95 percent black rather than 100 and let the dot gain flood the area uniformly.
  • “Rich black” refers to a black that is composed of cyan, magenta, yellow and sometimes black. It offers a richer, darker black but yields “0” forgiveness for poor registration and will make any reversed type a challenge to print and read. Avoid rich black on newsprint, especially if you are reversing out type.
  • A few designers have found that adding 15 – 30 percent cyan to a 90 – 95 percent black can often yield a darker black. It takes time and consistent prepress and printing to allow for testing, but once you find the right percentages you will have a great approach to use in your page designs.

Whether you are fortunate enough to be successful with the simple solution, or have no other choice than to go experimenting on your own, you should always rely on the knowledge and experience of you printer.

By Broc Sears

Broc Sears has been involved with publications for over 30 years. He a former Senior Editor for Design and Graphics at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he and supervised a creative team of 35 editors, designers and artists who are responsible for the daily visual report of the paper. He is currently a professional in residence at the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism and has also taught at UTA and SMU. He was Art Director of the Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News and University of North Texas Public Information Office.

He has been responsible for three redesigns at the Star-Telegram, the Dallas Times Herald in the mid 1980s and directed the redesign team of the Dallas Morning News in the early 1980s.

He has received recognition as an editor, designer, illustrator and art director by the Society of News Design, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Print Magazine, Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Graphis, Art Director's Club of NYC, Associated Press Managing Editors of Texas and Dallas Press Club.

He has been a featured speaker and guest lecturer at numerous schools and seminars including Texas A&M, University of Missouri, University of North Texas, Louisiana Press Association, Society of Newspaper Design, API, APME, APSE, Texas Press Association and others.