Toilet paper hasn’t been the only paper shortage to wreak havoc worldwide in recent years, although it has certainly received the most press coverage. Looming lockdowns in early 2020 sprung consumers into a paranoid frenzy to stock up on essentials (and what could be more essential than toilet paper?!), while simultaneously igniting a major spike in online purchasing.1 I’ll admit, as an American living in Germany I did the same thing.
But it wasn’t the panic-buying of toilet paper that led to its shortage. Rather, the paper and pulp industry—while facing staff shortages, transportation delays, and social distancing limitations—was forced to shift production toward paperboard (i.e., cardboard) to meet the skyrocketing demand for e-commerce shipping material. Picture that ever-growing pile of light brown paperboard boxes and envelopes in your house and the tightly packed, yet overflowing paper recycling bins down the road. That is where the toilet paper went: into your shipping boxes.
While other factors were certainly at play, including a shift from corporate purchasing (e.g., hygienic paper in offices, schools, airports) to consumer purchasing (i.e., at-home supplies), hygienic paper was not the only paper product to become scarce during the pandemic. Graphic paper—your newspaper, magazines, and print paper—also became practically unavailable, instilling a new sort of chaos behind the scenes of modern print journalism—including for Elements.
In her June 2022 article entitled, “The Magazine Supply Chain Is in Chaos,” Production Director, Claudia Smukler, of the popular2 U.S.-based political magazine Mother Jones writes,
“I’ve purchased paper through all kinds of market conditions over the years: energy shortages, sudden plant closures, tariffs, and transportation disruptions. I’ve always been able to procure it, but in the last 18 months, everyone I speak with starts each conversation, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’”3
Paper mills have been closing right and left, paper prices rose nearly 40% over a period of only six months (Fig. 1), and the ubiquity of delivery delays owing to trucker shortages have all led to an increasingly nail-biting scenario for magazines and newspapers worldwide—albeit mostly behind the scenes as the media headlines were mostly concerned with missing toilet paper.
We must align ourselves—much like the bacteria discussed in this Elements issue align themselves to the Earth’s magnetic field—with a sustainable path forward.
While global shortages and panic regarding toilet paper have largely subsided, severe turmoil persists in the magazine paper industry. Although Elements’ paper demand is significantly less than that of Mother Jones,4 our beloved geoscience magazine has faced similar challenges owing to paper shortages, ballooning paper prices (Fig. 1), and a few more recent shocks discussed herein. For example, the printing of Elements’ June 2022 issue (“Water in Planetary Bodies,” vol. 18, no. 3) was suddenly halted when our typical paper stock for interior pages (Somerset 50#) was simply not available, with an estimated (and uncertain) delivery delay of up to eight weeks. Upon consultation with our contacts at Allen Press, we opted to print on a slightly heavier paper stock (Somerset 60#) instead of waiting out the delay. If you flip through the pages of that issue, you probably wouldn’t even notice the difference of page thickness—but our per-weight shipping costs certainly noticed, tacking on a ~10% price increase compared with issues printed on our regular paper stock. Even after our preferred paper became available again, its price has continued to pop upward, spiking up 10% from 0.9503 to 1.0477 USD per pound for our April 2023 issue “Into the Rift: The Geology of Human Origins in Eastern Africa” (vol. 19, no. 2; highest datapoint in Fig. 1). In that instance, we were advised by print press representatives to run a 16-page cover5 (also called a “signature”) to avoid bleeding our pockets; advice we chose to follow but, in retrospect, somewhat regret because the paper difference is a bit more noticeable (although, admittedly, we on Elements’ production team might be a bit more sensitive to such subtleties). Nevertheless, the high quality of Elements’ content, crafted by the brightest minds in geoscience today, speaks for itself—regardless of paper stock. Luckily, the paper prices for Somerset 50# returned to the previous plateau value of 0.9503 USD per pound for the printing of our subsequent issue (“Olivine,” vol. 19, no. 3) and we did not again pursue the 16-page cover, preferring the typical 4-page cover.
Just as we were starting to gather our bearings in the tumultuous “new normal,” a bombshell hit. On August 29, 2023, Allen Press, Elements’ historical print press—which had been purchased by a larger U.S. publishing corporation (Sheridan) only months earlier—was announced by Sheridan president Paul Bozuwa to be scheduled for permanent closure in 60 days. Seventy-two employees at the facility in Lawrence, Kansas, USA, including Elements’ long-term and extremely helpful contacts, will all lose their jobs at the end of October. With a population of ~100,000 in the central United States, Lawrence isn’t unfamiliar with poverty and misfortune; a local newspaper reported in 2021 that several hundreds of homeless people were camping on the banks of the Kansas River and within Lawrence city parks.6 While offering our condolences and letters of recommendation, we can only hope that each and every laid-off employee of the former Allen Press will be able to easily transition into reliable employment without prolonged hardships. Meanwhile, a Sheridan representative quickly reached out to Elements to facilitate an immediate transfer to one of their sister presses in Ohio, USA. In fact, this issue of Elements, “Biomagnetism,” represents the first to be printed outside of Kansas since 2011.7
The examples mentioned here are only a few of the many events of the current global paper crisis that have rocked the editorial offices and livelihoods of those involved in the print journalism industry—from the relatively small Elements to the larger Mother Jones. Perhaps a new Richter- or Mercalli intensity–like scale should be proposed to describe the extent of shaking and overturn of this market in recent years: drastic paper price hikes have been a worrisome rumble felt by most people in the area (magnitude M = 4); paper shortages and delivery delays have knocked items off the shelves (M = 5); and facility closures have resulted in structural collapse (M = 6).
Under such market-driven “seismicity,” it is crucial that Elements establishes a strong footing, rooted in its values, vision, and dedication to scientific excellence, to confront these dynamic and uncertain times. First and foremost, the question of Elements converting to an online-only magazine is not on the table. The majority of our subscribers cherish the education-targeted purpose of each issue, which we believe is best fulfilled by bringing print copies into the classroom, semester after semester, captivating the minds of subsequent generations by elegantly unraveling fundamental topics in geoscience. We want our magazine to be visible and within reach for interested readers: in lecture halls, in offices, in common areas, and on coffee tables. We spoke with several enthusiastic subscribers at Goldschmidt2023 in Lyon. “Elements is my favorite thing to get in the mail,” said one, “I rip it open each time.” “I have every issue since 2005—they’re collector’s items!” Indeed, Elements belongs in print to continue serving its purpose.
Late last year, the Elements Executive Committee, which comprises representatives from each of the 18 participating societies (see page 202), met to confront the hard numbers. Paper and shipping prices are up while print advertising sales are down, leading to a substantial projected annual deficit. We are now faced with the question of how to continue Elements’ legacy of print geoscience literature without requiring a substantial increase in membership fees. We address this problem with a multi-pronged approach: from negotiating discounts with our publisher/distributor to recasting staff salaries and infrastructure; from diversifying our print and online presence for attracting advertising dollars to downright inviting readers, such as yourself, to consider making a tax-deductible donation to the magazine. We may also consider adopting a business model like that of Mother Jones with a range of subscription rates (print, online, or both), but such action remains under discussion. In the meantime, subscribers are welcome to convert their membership to online if they no longer wish to receive a print copy—but in no way do we wish to initiate a mass exodus from the print magazine: please stay! As mentioned, we believe that high visibility and easy access to hard copies of Elements magazine throughout the global geoscience community are vital to achieve its maximum educational benefits, which are truly unique throughout all scientific literature and, therefore, require caution regarding the extent to which the magazine goes digital.
We believe that high visibility and easy access to hard copies of Elements magazine throughout the global geoscience community are vital to achieve its maximum educational benefits.
We are making progress and the labor is love-filled: Elements is worth the effort, as confirmed by student visitors to the Elements booth at EGU and Goldschmidt (“What?! You have a whole issue on apatite?! That will be so helpful for my studies.” “Can I get a copy of your 2007 issue on medical mineralogy? I’m so excited to read this!”). At the end of the day, each Elements issue is an educational resource with an authority and relevance that live far beyond its publication date.
Along those lines, we met with dozens of secondary geoscience educators at EGU this year who were desperate to get their hands on Elements issues. “It might be a bit above their heads,” I warned. “It doesn’t matter!” they insisted. “Even just having these beautiful magazines available for students to peruse in the classroom could be a huge inspiration for their future studies.” Unfortunately, none of the many educators with whom I spoke had funds to secure a subscription. As such, we have decided to launch a Sponsor a School Campaign to “recycle” older issues and to bring new issues into these eager geoscience classrooms. Campaign contributions can be made in the form of a monetary donation or by donating some or all of your Elements back issues to schools in need. Contact the Editorial Team at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how to get involved.
The modern global paper crisis—be it toilet paper or magazine paper—continues to be chaotic and unpredictable, thus inherently pushing us to further develop our creativity, flexibility, patience, as well as our humanity. We must align ourselves—much like the bacteria discussed in this issue align themselves to the Earth’s magnetic field—with a sustainable path forward, holding on to the iron rod of excellence in geoscience literature. We have seen so many changes in the past year, and we will continue to see more.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make each Elements issue a valuable success. Each of our 18 societies has a news editor, member database manager, and representative on the Executive Committee; each issue is orchestrated by a set of 2–4 Guest Editors and as many as 20 authors; our Editorial Board is run by a dedicated group of scientists who serve multi-year terms; our Editorial Staff is managed by a team of copyeditors, proofreaders, and IT support; and we have a phenomenal graphics team led by visionary Michel Guay. We are grateful for their service and support. And, of course, what would Elements be without its readers?! From all of us to all of you: thank you very much—and keep reading.