The Media Today

All the news that’s eye-wateringly expensive to print

June 15, 2022

Last week, Brier Dudley, the editor of the Save the Free Press Initiative at the Seattle Times, raised an alarm about a sharp, if mundane-sounding, threat to local newspapers in the US: the cost of the actual paper they’re printed on, which has climbed more than 30 percent in two years. The spike, Dudley wrote, has in no small part been precipitated by diminishing newsprint production amid the longer-term decline of print newspapers, with newsprint mills shuttering or pivoting to produce more lucrative types of paper, not least packaging for companies like Amazon; in Washington State alone, two of three mills that, until recently, churned out newsprint now make less or none, with one refitted to mine cryptocurrency. Such industry-specific factors, along with malign forces in the wider economy, have combined to exacerbate what was already a perilous moment for printed local papers. “Everyone is affected by the rising cost of necessities,” Dudley wrote. “It’s even worse when you’re already on the edge of bankruptcy.”

Worries about the cost and supply of newsprint are not a new challenge for publishers. In 2018, as I reported for CJR at the time, the Trump administration levied a range of tariffs on newsprint arriving from Canada—a key source of paper imports for many US newspapers—after one of the aforementioned mills in Washington State complained that Canadian producers enjoyed an unfair advantage over domestic companies; a federal commission that reviews trade practices eventually overturned the tariffs, but US publishers had to contend with them in the interim, with some outlets blaming the tariffs for decisions to cut print pages, lay off staff, or even shut down entirely. Supply issues subsequently eased off a bit, but then came the pandemic, and with it immense, fresh challenges to physical supply chains across the economy, which often persisted even as demand rebounded. In March of this year, Buck Ryan, of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, wrote that US publishers were contending with a supply-chain “crunch” caused, in part, by a shortage of available truck drivers, and exacerbated by a blockade in Canada that began with a group of truckers voicing opposition to vaccine mandates and various other grievances, then metastasized into a highly disruptive nationwide movement.

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The challenge has not been limited to the printing of newspapers: Claudia Smukler, the production director of Mother Jones, wrote recently that procuring enough of the graphic paper needed to print that magazine—while always “a complex story of sourcing, sustainability, and logistics”—has been more challenging than ever in the past eighteen months, with supply constricted, prices soaring, and print deadlines nearly missed. Nor have problems been limited to publishers in the US and North America; far from it. As Smukler put it while reflecting on the myriad things that can go wrong in the printing process, it’s striking “how tenuous it all is, how interlocking our nations, our industries, and our democratic imperatives are.”

As with other recent supply-chain crises, that affecting the supply and cost of printing paper is deeply global and very complicated. One common thread is the closure or repurposing of newsprint mills, a trend—as Francois Chastanet, a paper expert in Canada, told Dudley—that is visible “pretty much everywhere.” In Chastanet’s country, the Toronto Star reported, back in January, that a paper shortage had gotten so bad for the news business that one local title had scrapped a planned issue. Around the same time, the Financial Times reported that publishers in the UK were struggling with newsprint prices that were rising at their fastest rate in thirty years, a problem exacerbated by the soaring cost of the energy needed to power printing plants. The UK only has one remaining newsprint mill, leaving it reliant on imports from Canada and Scandinavia. The cost of newsprint in Europe has recently soared as much as 80 percent, by one industry count.

Also in January, unionized paperworkers in Finland initiated a strike that would last nearly four months, contributing to the restricted global supply of magazine paper, Smukler wrote. In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, exacerbating the shortage of newsprint in Finland, where the printing of newspapers was “highly dependent on Russian pulpwood,” according to Estonia’s public broadcaster; the broadcaster noted that Estonian papers weren’t as reliant on Russia, but warned that they could be hit by knock-on price rises. In March, the Times of India reported that the invasion had (alongside other factors) also exacerbated shortages in that country, which imported nearly half its newsprint from Russia. (Another major source of newsprint for India? Canada, with its trucker blockade.) The price of paper also, unsurprisingly, spiraled in Ukraine itself.

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Also in March, two papers in Sri Lanka paused printing altogether amid a paper shortage and broader national economic crisis, while the Sydney Morning Herald reported on fears that independent papers in Australia could be forced out of business by impending steep price hikes at a key newsprint mill in that country—hikes, the Herald reported, driven by “electricity prices, the high cost of freight shipping, and reduced newsprint demand rather than an attempt to generate large profits.” The Norwegian owner of that mill had already shuttered a mill in New Zealand, leading customers there to import newsprint from Australia and pay higher costs. Titles in various countries are already cutting pages from their print editions in response to rising costs; yesterday, the production director at the French newspaper La Voix du Nord told a radio station that it was cutting back on various print supplements, including an annual exam-results pullout popular with local parents. Back in the US, Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher by circulation, recently eliminated one print day per week at more than a hundred of its titles, citing, in part, the “particular pressures” of rising print costs and a shortage of delivery drivers. The president of the Seattle Times told Dudley that rising gas prices are a problem, too, given how far newspaper carriers must drive on a daily basis.

Rising prices, of course, are neither the beginning nor the end of the financial crisis for local media in the US—news organizations moving to cut print days and products is not a recent phenomenon—and printed papers are only one part, albeit a very important one, of a diverse local-news landscape that also takes in TV, radio, and exclusively or predominantly online outlets, all of which face their own challenges. As Dudley pointed out, however, the rising cost of paper and gas is a sharp extra burden that many publishers do not need right now—and, while the broader challenges facing the news business are much-discussed, the difficult logistics of simply getting a print paper to a newsstand or a subscriber’s door can often fly under the radar in such conversations. (The cost crisis for newspapers could also, if you squint, offer an opportunity to show readers how broader economic trends have combined in complex ways to affect the product in their hands, in a news cycle that often casts inflation in political terms.)

As with Trump’s newsprint tariffs in 2018, it can be hard to disentangle the many factors that drive newspapers to shrink their output and lay off staff, but the cost of basic materials is certainly among them and could again feed into painful cuts in the near future—and relief, this time, won’t be as simple as a trade commission overturning a single government’s political decision. Publishers in various countries are now calling on their governments to intervene and offer financial support to the news business. Dudley issued a similar call to action last week. “Congress has much to do this summer,” he wrote. “But it must also recognize this crisis, agree that local journalism is a civic necessity and help the industry stabilize before it’s too late.”

Below, more on printing, paper, and local news:

  • Another call to action: Also writing last week, Dean Ridings, the CEO of the trade group America’s Newspapers, urged Congress to pass a bill that would provide for a series of tax credits benefiting local outlets. “As inflation is impacting everyone, it has made the environment for local newspapers even more challenging,” Ridings wrote. “The cost of retaining employees has gone up. The cost of newsprint has increased 30% over last year, and the cost of gas used to deliver the newspaper is up more than 50% in the past two years. Many newspaper carriers drive hundreds and even thousands of miles each week. These increases have driven many local newspapers closer to making further reductions or even ceasing operations.” Other outlets republished his column.
  • Another change: In recent years, a slew of newspapers have moved to outsource their print operations, often mothballing an in-house (or otherwise nearby) facility in favor of printing at a shared hub farther away. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote about such moves last year. “What to make of the trend?” Edmonds asked. “Tough times lead to the tough decision to move to print outsourcing. An earlier crest came during the 2009–2011 recession. For some observers, each closing matches a death-of-newspapers narrative. It certainly marks an end of an era for the craft of printers and other plant employees, easily overlooked by reporters and editors who do their own work elsewhere.”
  • Palm Springs: Over the weekend, Maria Sestito, of the Palm Springs Desert Sun, in California, took a deep look at the media ecosystem in the surrounding Coachella Valley, and how the pandemic and other economic forces have reshaped it. “Experts and local media executives say while the appetite for local news is still robust, the path forward will be challenging,” Sestito wrote. “The developments include cutbacks to TV news and print newspapers, departures of some high-profile personalities and reporters, the closure of some digital outlets, and the formation of new ones.” (The Desert Sun, for its part, outsourced print production to Arizona and cut its Saturday print edition.)
  • Baltimore: The Baltimore Banner, a much-anticipated digital-only nonprofit newsroom in Maryland, finally launched yesterday. “Our journalism will provide insight, depth, analysis and solutions,” Kimi Yoshino, the editor in chief, writes. “We want to break news, but don’t expect us to cover every shooting or incremental development at City Hall. We’ll watchdog government agencies and elected officials when things aren’t working right. We’ll highlight success stories. We’ll celebrate the rich culture and art in this region and provide useful information that helps you decide how to spend your time and money. And we’ll find interesting tales that you’ll want to talk about with family and friends.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.