Coping with the Tightening Newsprint Squeeze
By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
Every inch counts these days at the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
The classifieds are getting more compact, filler ads are disappearing and even section heads are shrinking – all in an effort to jam more news into less newsprint.
"We are trying to squeeze every last inch out of our existing newshole," says Managing Editor Vince Vawter. "We are looking at everything. Even if it means only an inch or so a page, it will mean a lot in the long run."
The largest increase in newsprint prices in 50 years is forcing newsrooms across the country to find creative ways to cut both costs and the amount of paper they use. Newsprint prices have risen an average of 30 percent to 35 percent during the last year and are expected to keep climbing well into 1996 (see "The Business of Journalism," March).
While some papers have resorted to layoffs and price hikes, many are taking less drastic approaches, such as reducing the number of office copies and cutting superfluous sections. While many changes go unnoticed, not all cuts have been well-received by readers.
The News-Sentinel's attempt to save newsprint by eliminating its horoscope column backfired. Readers of the 125,000-circulation daily balked at the idea of calling the paper's telephone audiotext system for their daily prognostication.
"We thought that it could work if we promoted it enough," Vawter says. "But that lasted exactly two days. People just didn't like it."
The Des Moines Register had a similar problem when its readers protested a cut in the paper's puzzle page. Ultimately, Register readers had no choice but to accept the elimination of the Sunday "Sports Forum" as well as a weekly features page. Recently, the paper slightly decreased its circulation in outlying areas and shrunk its overall newshole by 4 percent. Even the daily personal ads now run only one day each week because they were deemed to be using up too much newsprint.
The Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star in Norfolk eliminated its weekly "Hampton Roads Woman," a special section targeted at local women readers, in favor of a more general and "less newsprint intensive" section, according to Editor Cole Campbell.
In addition to suffering the loss of a familiar feature, Campbell's newsroom has had to adjust to working under its new system in which newshole and advertising must fall within a daily target number of pages, figured by calculating the average number of pages from the previous two years. Unlike before, the new policy requires specific approval from a top editor before any extra space can be allotted.
"Sure its been a little tougher," Campbell says. "We've had to tighten up..but we're not going to pass [the rise in] prices on to the customer."
The price of newsprint has also had a major impact on several larger papers. Increasing newsprint prices were cited as the sole reason behind several recent hikes in the cover price of the New York Times. Higher newsprint costs contributed to the loss of about 30 positions at the Miami Herald, and to nearly 100 layoffs at the Wall Street Journal. Newsprint price hikes also played a role in the April 2 merger of Milwaukee's Journal and Sentinel, resulting in hundreds of layoffs.
Layoffs were also the chosen solution at the Times Advocate in Escondido, California, following a 30 percent increase in newsprint prices. But in this case it was management that was eliminated. The directors of circulation and sales at the 41,000-circulation daily were let go in January and the chief financial officer's position was eliminated last month.
"We are at the point where additional page reductions would hurt our coverage," says Publisher John Armstrong, who cites newsprint as his second largest expense after payroll. "We concluded that it was necessary to reduce the cost of management, as difficult as it was."
The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, is trying to eliminate paper waste in order to conserve newsprint. More care is taken now during the layout process, and the paper is less likely to stop the presses for a late ad, says Operations Director Bob Clay.
So far the paper's preliminary efforts have produced results. In January the 111,000-circulation Post and Courier used 1,139 metric tons of newsprint, 5.8 percent less than at the same time last year.
"Some of the conservation methods are working, but there is a long way to go," says Clay. The paper has already combined two of its three editions, and management is considering cutting some of its stock market pages while shrinking the newshole to run more ads.
"We are talking about some drastic changes," says Clay. "But some of the smaller papers are going to get killed in this."
Skyrocketing paper prices have also had an effect on campus newspapers around the country. The student newspaper at Pennsylvania's Susquehanna University is facing a crippling 65 percent increase in printing expenses, in addition to the prospect of an additional 10 percent increase within the next year.
Because of the increase, the paper no longer has the option of adding pages on heavy news days, and some of the unpaid student staff must now pay their own way to conferences and training programs.
"Probably half of the staff doesn't even know about the [price increases]," says Editor in Chief Holly Gilmore. "We want to ask for new computers and it kind of stinks that all this money has to come out of the budget for printing."
Now that the low newsprint prices that helped struggling publications through the recession are history, analysts predict that rising prices will hit small and struggling publications the hardest.
Climbing newsprint prices could push the Detroit Legal News into the red. "We are at borderline profitability at the moment," says Publisher Bradley L. Thompson. The 2,500-circulation daily employs about 20 people and will consider layoffs only as a last resort, he says.
"We would consider, under great distress, decreasing our newshole," Thompson says. "I would hate to do that..but one way or another we will find a way to survive."