The paper industry—from pulp to printing—amounts to one of the largest sectors in Wisconsin manufacturing and, as much as beer or Harleys, is a signature state industry. Through innovation, from renewable forests to coated paper and carbonless paper, the industry has survived economic downturns and the rise of digital. Until now.
Production has fallen off the cliff. Mills are shrinking and closing due to market forces and their impact on Wall Street decisions. The industry may be at a tipping point, with digital growth and cheap paper from China pushing it over the edge. China is obtaining wood from other countries and importing it from the United States, including Wisconsin, warping the natural loop that has long defined the industry.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staffers John Schmid and Mike De Sisti will take readers from the lush forests of Wisconsin to the sprawling mills of China, from the craft of papermaking handed through the generations to the boardrooms of Wall Street hedge funds, where decisions are being made that affect thousands of workers and dozens of Wisconsin communities.
The story begins in Park Falls, Wisconsin, where Butch Johnson, the latest in a line of loggers, became a mill owner when he was owed money by a mill that was about to close. Through innovation, he is turning a tenuous profit. But he may see that disappear as China continues to ramp up its paper-making prowess.