Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Paper fades into history as papers buck the odds

The Unspin Room


WESTPORT, Conn.— If you possessed a Victrola in 1933, you could play the latest Victor release, a lullaby of Broadway by the legendary songwriting team of Billy Rose, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, "It's only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea." In the song, paper was insubstantial, and as a medium, it easily succumbs to Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which paper burns. But that fragility has been more than made up for several centuries by its relative ease of dissemination and its commercial ubiquity. Paper has been king.

It was a terrific run. In the wayback, animal skin was stretched and treated to become parchment, the precurser to papyrus. Then, in ancient Egypt, the pith of the Cyperus papyrus plant — hence "paper" — was pressed into a surface that could hold hieroglyphics. Later, in China, under the Han Dynasty around 100 B.C., a hemp-based material that first approximated paper was fabricated. And fabric it was.

For nearly two millennia, plant fibers such as linen, cotton and hemp were milled and pulped into paper. Recycled materials from rag-pickers — let's hear it for recycling! — was the basis of paper until the 19th century. From 1843 onwards, wood pulp replaced rag paper and an industry was born. There was one drawback: due to the use of alum in making the new paper, it turned out to be considerably more acidic, and the "slow fires" of chemical decomposition doomed much paper to a short shelf life.


Newspapers emerged during the rag-picker era in the 17th century; in those early days, they served largely as information updates for business and trade use. With the 19th century transition to more affordable and ubiquitous wood pulp, and advances in "hot metal" typesetting and the invention of the Linotype machine in 1884, newspapers and other periodicals proliferated and became voices of the people, checks on governmental abuses, and everything else worthy of note in towns all across America and beyond. "Roll the presses!" was both a real cry and shorthand for functional democracy.

Newspapers were often the only source of shared community knowledge in small towns, and powerful influencers of public opinion in cities of every size. Small wonder that despots and pretenders to despotism all over the world almost inevitably take aim at the press. Reporting can be a dangerous business, and many still pay with their lives and livelihoods every year. And until television and the digital revolution, we had paper to thank for the power and prevalence of the Fourth Estate.

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Newspapers have been dancing as fast as they can to keep up with the digital revolution and the wholesale and wholly dangerous rise of digital social media, epitomized in the U.S. and Europe by the extraordinary adoption of Facebook as a source of news. Since the turn of the 21st century, we have lost one-fifth of print journalism jobs. The Rocky Mountain News shuttered entirely, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is a pale internet-only ghost of its former self. A Brookings Institution report from 2015 showed a 67 percent decline in the number of newspapers since the mid-20th century, leaving numerous "news deserts" across America. Electronic media seldom fill this gap, as their resources and timelines for local reporting tend to be slim.

For those newspapers navigating the bifurcation between paper and bits-and-bytes, successful financial equations have been proving hard to come by. For The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, angel investors have stepped in; for others, including local papers scooped up by private equity firms seeking short-term gains, as one colleague described it to me: "It's exchanging analog dollars for digital pennies." Customers are used to internet information being free, making newspaper "pay walls" a tricky proposition with limited success so far.


There was still a fighting chance in this scenario, but new Western Hemisphere trade wars upset the balance more than before. In January, the Commerce Department instituted tariffs as high as 20 percent on Canadian paper, and the impact was swift. Indeed, newspapers had been the beneficiaries of Ottawa's subsidies to paper manufacturers, helping cushion the impact of circulation declines. With the higher costs for newsprint, at least a dozen local papers soon cut publication days, trimmed paper size or decreased the number of pages per issue.

More ominously, cuts to newsroom staff — many already thinned by years of incremental reductions — have recently proliferated, such as draconian 50 percent cuts at New York's once-mighty Daily News. In a reprieve whose details will be published within the month, the U. S. International Trade Commission has just unanimously overturned the tariff on Canadian paper, but in many cases the damage has already been done.

Will more newspapers follow the venerable Ringling Brothers Circus, which folded its tent last year? The rapid ascent of paperless digital media is the elephant in the room.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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