The Future of News

Until very recently, the things that we refer to as “newspapers” were exclusively material objects made of paper.  Today, many people actually read what they call “newspapers” on digital devices, and some have even taken to calling printed newspapers “dead tree media” as a way of signaling what they see as the backwardness and even irrelevance of that particular method of news distribution.  Though there are some signs that printed newspapers are thriving in local communities, it is unclear as of late 2018 what the future of the medium is.  Dead Tree Media is not a forecast of what that future will be, but rather it offers a reconsideration of the newspaper’s past by proposing a new history of its industrial production as a paper object. 

When most people think about printed newspapers, they tend to think about the words on the page and the effects and influence that those words have on public opinion.  Newspapers are the things that provide us with the journalism that is vital for a democratic society.  Dead Tree Media explores another element of the newspaper’s material history.  Rather than starting with the news appearing before the reader on paper, this book traces the industrial production of the printed newspaper back out of the readers’ hands and all the way to the tree that was cut down at the start of the production process for newsprint.  In showing this central but overlooked element of the business history of news, this book also tells a new environmental history of the printed newspaper.  “The newspaper of today was a tree yesterday,” as a trade journal pointed out in 1923.


For most of the twentieth century, those trees that started the production process of these US newspapers were in Canada.  US publishers gained ready access to those trees because of trade agreements between the two countries, and in this regard Dead Tree Media offers a timely perspective on an important element in the long history of US-Canada trade.  As the book shows, US papermakers in the early twentieth century sought to continue the prevailing protectionist policies that made newsprint imports from Canada prohibitively expensive.  US publishers, on the other hand, sought free trade in newsprint in order to gain access to paper manufactured in Canada from the country’s vast spruce forests.  This, many publishers argued, would enable them to continue producing the newspapers that were vital to the culture and politics of their communities.  Starting in 1911, these arguments were successful, and US policymakers removed the duties on imported Canadian newsprint.  Canadian trees became the foundation of the American newspaper business. 

Among its other protectionist policies, the Trump administration has sought to reinstitute tariffs on newsprint imported from Canada, and there has been recently some excellent commentary on the political implications of these new duties.  However, scant attention has been paid to the removal of these tariffs over a century ago, a policy decision that provided a massive and long-term subsidy to the newspaper business.  The removal of duties on imported Canadian newsprint, as Dead Tree Media shows, supported the operations of US publishers by giving them cheap access to the most important thing that they needed to produce their newspapers: the paper itself.  In 1909, Canadian newsprint imports accounted for only a tiny fraction (1.7%) of overall US consumption.  By 1950, after nearly four decades of duty-free trade in newsprint with the US, Canada had become by far the world’s leading producer of newsprint (it accounted for some 54 percent of total global production), and it exported some 90 percent of its newsprint production to the United States, where it accounted for 80 percent of total newsprint consumption. 

This Canadian newsprint contributed significantly to the growth and prosperity of the US newspaper during the twentieth century, as it not only provided the space to print the journalism vital to American democracy but also provided the space to print the advertising that paid for much of the journalism.  In 1922, for example, the morning New York Times was composed of 58 percent advertising, and the competing New York World was 52 percent advertising.  In later decades, these proportions would come to define the US newspaper more generally and on a national level.  According to estimates by the federal government, in 1945 some 51 percent of the more than 3 million tons of newsprint consumed in the United States was used to print advertising, and this proportion rose to 59 percent in 1950.  In 1970, US newspapers used an estimated 62 percent of the more than 9 million tons of newsprint that they consumed to print advertising.

Taken as an object, the printed newspaper in the twentieth century increasingly was laden with advertising, and the advertising revenue sustained some of the most important reporting of the twentieth century.  On January 11, 1973, for example, one could buy a 108-page edition of the Washington Post for a dime to read detailed coverage of the emerging Watergate scandal.  Historians often remember the substance of news reporting but forget that the actual package that delivered that news was a thick paper object, and much of what was printed in those paper objects was advertising.  Nearly two thirds of the space in the Post on January 11, 1973 was filled by advertising, not news. 

Until the mid-1990s, newspapers were the leading generators of advertising revenue across all sectors of media.  When the printed newspaper was the dominant medium for delivering journalism, it was also the dominant medium for delivering adverting.  The current challenges facing the newspaper business are strikingly recent, and in some respects the most important of these is finding ways to generate advertising revenue.  There is a still a strong demand for news, but many people today are less likely to want to pay for a paper object in order to get it.  And advertisers, in turn, are less likely to want to buy space in printed newspapers. 

In many ways, the key problem facing newspapers in the twenty-first century is figuring out how to reimagine a commercial market for news without a physical paper object as the primary object of production and exchange.  In providing a new history of the printed newspaper in the twentieth century, Dead Tree Media offers a timely reconsideration of one of the most important elements of American life.

Michael Stamm is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University. He is the author of Dead Tree Media.

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