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When you need 70,000 pounds of paper a month and the supply chain is in chaos

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A pile of several issues of Out magazines

Magazines require a high grade of coated paper, one that ink will lay well on. Bennett Purser/Marketplace

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Paper is one of many goods in short supply these days, and the shortage has been exacerbated by supply chain jams and a resurgence in demand.

Mother Jones’ production director, Claudia Smukler, wrote about the difficulties in the print magazine supply chain recently. “The whole process — harvesting timber and hauling it to pulp mills, getting the ingredients to the paper machines, shipping paper to pressrooms and delivering the finished product to readers — depends on an interconnected network that is vulnerable to global and local events,” she wrote.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Smukler about how the print magazine industry works and the hurdles that come with it. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So what’s it like these days being a production director at a magazine?

Claudia Smukler: Yeah, it’s very volatile these days, a lot of changes going on. Nothing is a given.

Ryssdal: And you had a particular challenge back in March and April, right? The amount of paper that’s involved is staggering — 70,000 pounds of paper was going to be late, and you needed it and you couldn’t get it?

Smukler: Well, the way we purchase paper is, we’d like to have an order on press, some in the warehouse and some at the mill being made at the time, so we have a flow of paper. And the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of disruptions on that. So sometimes we can’t get our full allocation of 70,000 pounds that we need for one issue. Also, there have been delays from the transportation sector that moves materials around, and the mills have had difficulty keeping up with some of the demand that has come back since the pandemic.

Ryssdal: We should be clear, when we talk about paper for magazines, we’re not talking the same kind of stuff that we use to use in the office printer, the 8 1/2 by 11. There are grades and weights, and it’s not the same. And you need different things for different kinds of images and all of that.

Smukler: Well, it’s pretty complex. But basically, it’s like a giant size roll of toilet paper, but a very specific kind that’s coated, and ink lays well on that paper. But it is something that we specifically order for our publication, the presses that we run, and the quantity and page count that we run.

Ryssdal: So obviously, the supply chain being a mess for the last two and a half years is the proximate cause of this. But I wonder how much of your paper challenge is a result of the move to digital and thus an overall need for less magazine-grade paper, and then probably fewer mills putting it out, and thus your supply challenge to begin with?

Smukler: You’re right, I think there’s historical, you know, a shrinking demand for publication-grade papers, and there are fewer mills that are making that than 10 years ago. Certainly the pandemic came along with lots of disruptions. But you know, post pandemic, I think one of the things that is aggravating the situation right now is that magazines and catalogs, which use the same kind of paper as magazines,   have come back pretty strong. And it’s maybe surprised the mills, or the mills have decided that publication paper is shrinking. So they’re moving to convert some of their paper machines over to packaging and some of the other grades that seem to be growing these days.

Ryssdal: I imagine you’re bullish on the print magazine industry, given your line of work?

Smukler: Well, yes, I am. And I think print is really resilient. While we maybe have 9 million page views a month across all those platforms, the 185,000 print subscribers are our strongest supporters.

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