An unprecedented global paper shortage, exacerbated by the perverse economics of the COVID-19 pandemic, is straining the ability of electric cooperative statewide associations to deliver their popular monthly consumer magazines.

Increasing demand for magazine-quality paper amid rapidly shrinking supply, rising costs and labor and transportation issues are driving the shortages and forcing statewide editors and managers to make last-minute changes to their paper quality, size and mail dates in order to print.

“The uncertainty of having enough paper is like the black cloud following Charlie Brown around,” said Steven Johnson, editor of Cooperative Living for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.

Beyond fun features, co-op news, photos and favorite recipes, the co-op magazines deliver key items like annual meeting notices and proxy ballots, many of which are required by law to be published by a set deadline.

“The co-op magazine oftentimes is the only way to reach rural members,” said Johnson, who also serves as vice president of communications at the statewide based in Glen Allen, Virginia.

“There are still places in America where mail is the only primary form of communication. You can’t offer a website edition to someone who does not have broadband.”

'Haven't Seen the Bottom Yet'

The paper shortage can be traced to 2017, when mills that produce coated graphic paper for magazines started shutting down or converting their machines to produce more profitable products like corrugated box materials and brown packaging paper. The pandemic drove an explosion of new online shoppers, which pushed paper mills farther down this path.

By mid-2021, catalogues came roaring back, further squeezing the high-quality paper supply and stretching an already-stressed labor force.

A four-month strike at UPM in Finland, which produces 33% of the world’s coated paper, and labor trouble at Canada’s paper mills have added pressure to the market this year. A scarcity of truck drivers and other supply-chain kinks piled on.

Another wallop is coming this fall: Chinese paper manufacturer Nine Dragons will convert a second paper mill in Wisconsin from coated paper to packaging products.

“I’ve been in this industry 27 years this August, and I’ve never experienced this,” said Carrie Schweikart, a sales executive at Quad, a Wisconsin-based printer that produces some 2.1 million co-op magazines a month for VMDAEC and statewides in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma. “It is a challenge we’ve never seen before.”

Schweikart says she cannot foresee a return to “normal” any time soon.

“We haven’t seen the bottom yet,” she said. “When Nine Dragons is gone, that could be the bottom.”

Shannon Scheel, a senior strategy executive at LSC Communications in Alexandria, Virginia, echoed the sentiment that the industry’s troubles are extraordinary, but he sees some signs of hope for next year. LSC prints for 11 statewides with a combined monthly circulation of 3.5 million.

“I see no relief for the balance of this year but remain optimistic going into 2023,” he said.

So, what can statewide magazine editors do?

“Get your paper orders for next year to your printers now,” said Geri Miller, a magazine production consultant for several statewides. “Don’t wait until October. Don’t overinflate but be realistic. And consider publishing your legal notices a month earlier if possible.”

'Crazy and Uncertain'

Co-op editors on the frontlines also encourage their peers to be flexible, plan ahead and partner with their printers.

VMDAEC’s printer used two types of paper to ensure the April magazine, with its legal notices, published on time. And the statewide recently purchased a 100-ton “strategic paper reserve” to avoid another such emergency, Johnson said.

“Our association is the proud owner of a railcar of paper,” he said. “If push comes to shove, we can provide annual meeting reports printed and delivered on a timely basis. It’s not something we thought we’d ever do, but those are steps we are taking.”

Ohio Cooperative Living worked with its printer this spring to locate just enough paper for three co-ops that had to publish annual meeting notices. The other 19 versions were delivered when the full paper supply finally arrived.

“Their bylaws have specific date requirements to get those magazines in the mail and we were in real danger of not hitting those dates without splitting the run like we did,” said Jeff McCallister, managing editor at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives in Columbus.

“It has just been crazy and uncertain. The magazine is as popular with readers as it’s ever been. We are going to keep going and do the best we can.”

Oklahoma Living is now standardized at 28 pages rather than its past average of 36, said Anna Politano, magazine publisher and director of public relations and communications at Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives in Oklahoma City.

Faced with a major paper delay, “we told our printer we would adapt and be flexible with the purpose of being printed on time so that the co-op message was not compromised,” she said.

“We have flexibility, but our critical mission is to distribute the electric cooperative message. Even with challenging circumstances, our primary focus will be carried out.”