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Mike Connelly: What happens when a newspaper runs out of paper?

Two weeks ago, The Buffalo News had an unexpected (and unprecedented) problem: We worried we wouldn’t have enough paper to print the Sunday newspaper.

Across the United States, newspapers are scrambling to find newsprint. A week ago Monday, three truckloads of newsprint failed to arrive at The News’ downtown printing plant. We usually have 900 rolls of newsprint on hand, according to Dave Pickens, The News’ director of production. As I write this, we have 56. It takes 20 rolls to print a typical weekday News. You do the math.

We found enough paper to print The News two Sundays ago and every day since, but it hasn’t been easy. That week, we reduced the number of pages in the newspaper. We begged suppliers to speed up deliveries. We got help from newsprint suppliers we don’t usually use.

The tale of the Sunday News that almost wasn’t goes back to 2015, says Jacki Roach, The News’ assistant director of production and the person who buys our newsprint. Newspapers, hit hard by the Great Recession and the growth of digital, used less and less newsprint. Paper companies cut production. Some even converted newsprint lines to producing corrugated paper. Online shopping has created a big demand for shipping boxes.

The problem worsened in October 2017, when Canadian newsprint companies started passing along the cost of defending against proposed Trump administration tariffs.

In January, rule changes for truckers exacerbated an already serious trucker shortage. For every 12 trailers of newsprint ready for shipment, Roach says, one truck driver is available.

Then in March, the first round of tariffs hit. At least one Canadian newsprint company started sending paper overseas instead of to the U.S.

This perfect storm has raised The News’ newsprint costs by a third since October. We spend more than $600,000 a month on newsprint.

Roach says all the mills are producing at capacity and are backed up with orders. We now must order newsprint three to six months in advance – a dicey proposition. If the Bills have a great fall, for example, we will want to print more pages and more copies of the newspaper.

Pickens and Roach say supply remains tense. As I write this, they expect three truckloads tomorrow.

If the trucks don’t arrive, we are in trouble.

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