Press Box

Paper-Thin Excuses

If a publisher moans about rising newsprint costs, slap him.

To serve as a newspaper publisher, one must be able to whine and blubber at a moment’s notice about how the rising cost of newsprint is preventing the paper from achieving greater profitability.

This week, Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co. took its turn blowing its nose to cite increased newsprint costs as one of the reasons it’s downsizing the paper from grande to tall. By 2007, the Journal will have lopped off 3 inches from the width of each page, an act the company claims will save it $18 million annually.

Here’s the sympathetic press the Journal got after blaming its move on newsprint costs:

Given the widespread concern over the price of newsprint, which has soared 40 percent in the last three years, more broadsheets could shrink even further, to tabloid size, over the next few years and convert to lighter paper stock.—New York Times, Oct. 12The Journal is the most recent paper to combat higher newsprint prices by reducing its paper consumption. …Newsprint prices have risen steadily since bottoming out at $435 per metric ton in 2002. On Oct. 1, they jumped $35 per ton to $625 per ton—their highest historical price.—Washington Post, Oct. 12 Many other newspapers have also reduced their size in recent years, responding to higher newsprint costs and research finding that many readers prefer smaller newspapers.—Associated Press, Oct. 11

But the problem with the excuse is that when newsprint prices are corrected for inflation, the commodity costs no more than it did in June 1997. And the current price is only 68 percent of its 20-year high, which came in early 1988, as the accompanying chart indicates. Far from being victims of high newsprint costs, newspapers have been coasting on cheap newsprint for much of the past two decades.

Source: Deutsche Bank Securities and Paper & Pulp Week (Prices indexed to 2000.)

Dow Jones isn’t the only publisher scapegoating “pricey” newsprint. This week, Knight Ridder, Media General, and the Tribune newspaper chains all sobbed about how increased newsprint costs are contributing to declining profits. Tribune, the New York Times Co., and Knight Ridder are using newsprint costs, along with falling circulation and advertising, as justifications for recent newsroom layoffs.

The last time nominal prices spiked, which was in the mid-1990s, Philip Meyer of the University of North Carolina debunked the publisher bellyaching by charting the real cost of newsprint for the Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 1995). His finding: Real prices were down from historical highs.

Seeing as I pinched the idea for this piece from Meyer’s CJR article, I might as well help myself to his conclusion, as the newspaper business hasn’t changed much. Meyer notes that the nominal price for newsprint “has a way to go to reach its expected peak … and prices are still moving higher. Publishers using newsprint prices as an excuse for slashing newsroom budgets will find plenty of new ammunition.”


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