What a lack of truck drivers means for newsprint cost, delivery

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, the Smokey and the Bandit movies painted a pretty glamorous portrait of long-haul truckers. Of course, like most movie glamor, the reality is a lot different. The long hours away from home, stagnant wages and growing demands combine for a shortage of over-the-road drivers.

The shortage of truck drivers can impact publishers in a very real way when it comes to receiving newsprint. While some very large metropolitan newspaper printers like the Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel can receive newsprint by rail, the vast majority of us receive our newsprint by truck.

Tony Smithson, newsprint, printing, truck drivers
Tony Smithson

A lack of truck drivers can mean late delivieries and higher transportation costs for newsprint.

The same labor shortage affecting U.S. manufacturing as a whole has also impacted the trucking industry, but with some additional challenges.

Far from the joy of the open road and joking with your friends on the CB radio, truck drivers note the long hours, the unhealthy lifestyle and the stress caused by unsafe drivers with whom they share the road. While some truck drivers can make in excess of $100,000 per year, the median income for over-the-road truck drivers in 2018 was $44,260, with a 60- or 70-hour week not being uncommon.

In December 2017, the use of electronic driver logs was instituted by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a safety measure for over-the-road trucks. Truckers are now required to utilize technology that enforces maximum total work hours per day and break periods. While they may be safer now, unfortunately, many drivers are not being paid during those breaks, so they have to be away from home longer to make the same money.

Another emerging challenge is the legalization of marijuana use in various states. Although 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use, the DOT prohibits marijuana use by holders of a commercial driver’s license, even legal use. This provides yet another disincentive for truck drivers.

So what’s a publisher to do?

First, it’s important to communicate with your suppliers about the challenges they’re facing. While most are in the same boat, some are not. Alberta Newsprint Company, for example, is located near western Canada’s oil fields. Trucks hauling equipment and supplies are regularly looking for “back hauls” so they don’t have to return empty. However, ANC acknowledges they are fortunate to be the exception in the market.

Suppliers recommend placing orders early and not letting inventories run so low that a late truck would cause significant production problems. While publishers need to keep inventory costs low, the impact of a delayed press-run could be devastating. Publishers should keep in mind that trucking challenges are often out of the mills’ control and should plan accordingly.

Another helpful strategy for publishers is to work within a supplier’s “footprint.” This is the geographical area the mill serves based on economical transportation. For example, while your preferred mill might be in Canada, you could be at the outer edge of that mill’s footprint and might get better delivery from a mill in the Southeast.

One supplier noted that they have learned publishers have “reputations” among truckers, particularly independents. Deliveries to companies that have extremely limited receiving hours or that make trucks wait hours to be unloaded can simply be rejected by haulers. This not only delays shipments but also increases transportation costs — any money saved in reducing receiving staff could end up generating unintended costs elsewhere.

One suggestion that we have implemented at our Janesville location is to receive newsprint on an appointment basis. When our press-room orders a load of newsprint, the receiving department is in the loop with the mill’s customer service representative.

When the load is scheduled for delivery, the mill’s CSR connects the trucking company to our receiving department, who sets up an appointment. This allows us to closely track what is incoming and gets thr trucker unloaded and back on the road quickly. While we’re not a huge customer, it is a system that works well for our five loads of newsprint per week.

Now if we could just find a black and gold Pontiac Trans Am …

Tony Smithson is the regional director of printing operations for APG Media of Southern Wisconsin and APG Printing Solutions. He can be reached at tsmithson@gazettextra.com or 608-755-9473.