It’s no secret: Maine’s paper industry is in trouble and has been for decades.

As the world has digitized — a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — Mainers have seen mill towns like Ashland, Mexico, and Rumford bear the brunt of the disruption. Jobs lost. Families scattered. Once-prosperous industrial hubs now face challenges earlier generations couldn’t have imagined.

In the late 1960s, our state’s paper industry employed nearly 20,000 people. By 2017, that number had dipped to just over 4,000 jobs. And those lost jobs don’t reflect the generations of families who worked in the woods or ran restaurants or sold goods in the mill towns. Today, only a handful of paper mills remain in the United States.

Yet paper endures. Contrary to the popular narrative, the global industry is far from dead. Directly and indirectly, it still employs hundreds of thousands of people in places like Europe, China, and the Philippines, where production costs are lower thanks to government subsidies, cheaper labor, and other factors. Today, demand for paper products is at its highest point in recent memory. The world economy — weighed down by war, inflation, and supply-chain disruption — brings more challenges and costs. Wood pulp is in shorter supply and paper prices have skyrocketed by as much as 60% in recent months. European disruptions to the natural gas sector — integral to the paper production process — inevitably come home and affect those who buy paper here.

What is bad news for the world can be good news for Maine paper. It can make a comeback. The conditions are right. It may sound trite, but the fix for a high price is, well, a high price. The world’s demand for paper will make manufacturers consider reopening mills. I know Maine is ready to contribute.

Some magazines, like Down East, are thriving. By many measures, our print edition is more popular than ever. In any given year, Down East’s subscription renewal rate is 85%, among the highest in the industry, illustrating that people will pay for quality material. We put out more than one million magazines per year.

Advertisement

Like other publishers, we buy lots of paper. Maine-made paper is good paper — some of the best. But it is expensive. That’s why Down East’s parent company hasn’t bought Maine paper for the last 20 years. Put bluntly, being successful is often a matter of watching pennies.

The lengths to which we go to buy affordable paper can seem crazy: Right now, our paper comes from a broker in Connecticut, which buys it from a U.S.-based Finnish company, which supplies it from Norway after it is manufactured in Austria, by using (until recently) Russian gas to power the mill. Even after all of that, this European-produced paper is substantially less expensive than domestically produced sheets. Please don’t think too badly of us: Publishing today is a difficult business with very thin margins.

Globalization is changing, and the global economy will never be the same. Therein lies the opportunity for Maine’s paper industry. Demand eventually breeds supply. And paper producers will eventually catch up.

I am quite sure that many U.S. businesses are like us and would love to buy Maine-made paper, but it must be cost-competitive. It will require all stakeholders to compromise — the paper mill owners, the government regulators, environmentalists, and labor. It will only work if we watch the pennies together. My hope is that Maine’s paper industry takes notice and takes action.

Our team at Down East sees it firsthand: The demand for paper is real. Now it’s a matter of getting people to buy it from Maine. Do that, and our paper industry will come back stronger than ever.

Bob Fernald is president and publisher of Down East Magazine.

Comments are no longer available on this story