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Soaring Newsprint Prices Sting Readers

February 15, 1995

This winter Iowa readers are finding something unexpected in their morning copy of the Des Moines Register: a lesson in newspaper economics.

The Gannett Co. daily cut its news columns by 4 percent. Its daily ``Datemaker″ personal ads are relegated to Sunday only. ``Chalk It Up,″ a feature for schoolchildren, has disappeared. One day this month the Register even dropped two daily puzzles, prompting 350 irate phone calls.

A grim page-one announcement in January explained: ``Due to nationwide paper shortages, The Register is experiencing difficulties with its newsprint supply.″ It warned readers to expect cuts in coverage and some changes in the newspaper’s format ``to conserve newsprint for the duration of the shortage.″

Across the country, the skyrocketing cost of newsprint, which typically accounts for 20 percent of a newspaper’s annual budget, is spurring harsh measures in the $40 billion newspaper industry. Newsprint prices are already up 20 percent from a year ago; a new round of increases will bring the annual rise to 40 percent by May. And recent strikes at newsprint-producing mills in western Canada had stirred fears of paper shortages. (Most have been settled.)

In response, newspapers are changing internal operations, including cutting staffs. They are passing along costs to readers via higher subscription rates and newsstand prices. Also being sacrificed are the community listings that were considered a public service, but now take up valuable newsprint. And several papers have trimmed news space, with international news apparently first to go.

On April 2, Journal Communications Inc. will shutter its 113-year-old Milwaukee Journal, merging the afternoon daily with the morning Milwaukee Sentinel. Rising newsprint prices would have added $9 million to the two papers’ costs this year, the company said.

Gannett’s Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette slashed its news columns by up to 2 percent, or about half a page per day. It trimmed Saturday church listings and international wire-service stories. ``We tried not to affect our local news reporting,″ says Executive Editor Claude Werder.

The Los Angeles Times in January began leaving its Sunday magazine out of 100,000 copies of the paper. The Times Mirror Co. newspaper says newsprint prices will boost its costs at least $40 million this year.

Others are turning to painful personnel moves. In November, the Miami Herald, owned by Knight-Ridder Inc., announced it would eliminate 30 to 40 jobs in all departments to compensate for soaring newsprint costs. Tribune Co. newspapers, including the Chicago flagship, froze hiring around Jan. 1. The publisher of the Times Advocate in Escondido, Calif., also eliminated two senior positions, director of sales and director of circulation and operations. ``I decided not to nibble around the edges and went to a structural change in management that will save money long term,″ says John Armstrong. Tribune officials say they are also considering trimming news space and page size.

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