Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

News From the Forest

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 26, 2010 --  

The archaic process of manufacturing newspapers is symbolic of the industry's larger problems.

Somewhere amongst the vast tracks of forest in western Nova Scotia, begins a fantastic journey, one that our grandchildren will hardly believe. It is a story of the daily newspaper -- a mass-market industrial product that has hardly changed since the early 19th century.

On the edge of clear-cut tracts of the Mersey Woodlands, thousands of farmed pine trees are chopped down and trucked along Canada Trunk 8 to Liverpool Bay. Here, at the sprawling and odiferous Bowater Mersey pulp mill, the trees are shredded into small fibers, then bleached, glued and pressed into sheets of newsprint. These sheets are then rolled onto 6-foot-tall spools and loaded onto a ship for the thousand-mile journey southward.

The ship enters the Chesapeake Bay and then the Potomac River, where it forces all traffic on America's Interstate 95 to halt at the two-year-old Woodrow Wilson drawbridge (built with a draw span primarily for these shipments).1 After clearing the bridge, the ship pulls into dock in of the charmingly restored colonial city of Alexandria, Virginia.

Here, amongst waterfront sailing marinas backed by neo-colonial houses, stand two Robinson Terminal buildings -- the last shipping warehouses still operating in what was once a teeming 18th century port. At the warehouse on Oronoco Street, the spools of newsprint are loaded onto boxcars of the last industrial-era rail line leading to the docks. A Norfolk Southern train takes them across seven miles of suburbia to the Washington Post's Springfield, Virginia printing plant.
Dead trees aboard

Here, over 100,000 tons of newsprint are sent through the presses each year, about a third of which come from the Bowater Mersey plant in Nova Scotia.2 The Post sends its 60,000 daily copies3 through its high-speed presses in wee hours of the morning. Before dawn, its unionized workforce trucks the printed papers to distribution centers around the region, where independent carriers load them into their cars and trucks and hand carry them to your doorstep.

This system is an amazing feat of 19th century industrial technologies. But while it is efficient enough to deliver a product with a cover price of only 75 cents, it is no match for the publishing efficiency of the internet, which can distribute a very similar electronic product to a nearly unlimited population almost instantly and with distribution costs of virtually zero. Indeed, the Rube Goldberg system of killing trees to deliver written news is so complex and slow compared with the simplicity and speed of the internet, it is amazing that it still takes place. Our grandchildren will find the paper-based system unbelievable, and when we insist it was true, they will dismiss it as crazy.

Without a doubt, it is merely a generation used to the old-fashioned way that keeps this process alive. Old-school editors and publishers don't consider the news to be real unless it is on a printed page. Older readers complain that they like the feel of the newspaper and hate computer screens. Until these folks age out of the system, there will undoubtedly be an ever-shrinking market for news distributed on dead trees, albeit on a much smaller scale than today.

Unfortunately for internet news, the topic of print vs. internet distribution has become inextricably entwined with the angst over the declining newspaper business model. In theory, there is no reason for internet news sites to be free and print newspapers to cost money. Yet the free-wheeling culture of the early internet led many users to be hesitant to pay for any information. And the relatively open (compared to print) advertising model of the internet quickly led to the realization that newspapers had been overcharging advertisers for equivalent results for decades.

This has led to the (not entirely false) perception by newspaper workers that the internet is to blame for the decline of their business. So it is not so surprising that executives of companies like the Washington Post have underfunded their internet divisions and treated them as eclectic experiments rather than the future of the business.

This is a shame. Because by clinging to the old-fashioned way of doing things, newspapers are only further alienating up-and-coming readers with excruciatingly slow and poorly-designed news sites and driving them to seek alternate sources of information. Despite the release of Apple's iPad earlier this year bringing some renewed interest in electronic publishing from news organizations, the only American newspaper that has succeeded in delivering a decent mobile news reading experience is the New York Times.

Without a doubt, change is coming. North American per-capita consumption of newsprint declined by 16 percent from 1975 to 2005 4 and the company owning the Bowater Mercy plant in Nova Scotia has been operating under bankruptcy protection for the past year and a half.5 By all accounts, the current print system is on the verge of extinction. It is high time for newspapers to get their digital products in order.

David G. Young was a shareholder in the Washington Post Corporation from 1999 to October 2010, and subscribed to the paper edition from February 1993 to August 2010. He now reads the news on an Android smartphone.

Related Web Columns:

Death of the Daily, March 10, 2009

Costly Reading, January 8, 2008


1. Washingtonian, Washington DC: A City of Bridges, March 1, 2006

2. Washington Post Company, 2009 Annual Report, February 23, 2010

3. Ibid.

4. Pulp and Paper Products Council, Newsprint Demand Per Capita, 2007

5. Winnipeg Free Press, AbitibiBowater Restructuring Decision Approaching in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, October 26, 2010