Newsprint tariffs hurt everyone to benefit a single company’s business plan.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
- First Amendment to the Constitution
The print newspaper that comes to your doorstep, and the content you’re reading on your device, is under a government-driven economic assault via tariffs imposed on the printed paper on which that content appears. And despite impacting only “newsprint,” the threats affect the financial health of news operations across the country, and the content that you and millions of people expect in both print and digital forms.
The government can’t directly curtail the freedom of the press, thanks to the First Amendment. But through these tariffs, it is threatening to undermine the ability of news organizations in fulfilling their mission to provide credible information that you rely on for major developments and trends, as well as obituaries and community events. The tariff's negative impacts also hit book publishers, and even the very paper mills that the tariffs supposedly protect.
Ultimately, your right to know will be affected. Why? Because a New York hedge fund purchased a single paper mill in Washington state, employing about 300 people, and as part of its business plan – along with layoffs – filed a complaint seeking protection from Canadian paper mills so that it could raise its prices. Not a single other U.S. paper mill supported this effort. And the American Forest & Paper Association, an advocate for the U.S. pulp, paper and wood products industries, opposed it.
That’s no surprise in light of the newspaper industry’s economic distress over the recession, the advent of digital content, much of it free, and resulting changes in reader and advertiser patterns. While overall print and digital readership has held up, newsprint demand itself has dropped by 75 percent since 2000, a decline destined to hasten due to these tariffs that have raised newsprint costs 20 to 30 percent, affecting not only newspapers, but also the stability and jobs in pulp and paper mills.
Already that one mill in Washington is touting that the tariffs are bringing back the 50 jobs it had cut prior to its filing. But already, just one of about 5,000 daily and weekly newspapers in the U.S., the Tampa Bay Times, winner of 12 Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in journalism and owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, announced 50 layoffs due to the tariffs. And there's much more to come. The News Media Alliance, representing about 2,000 newspapers, reported results of a survey in which 70 percent of respondents would consider reducing paper consumption even before the far higher impact of the tariffs was known. Plus, 38 percent would consider layoffs. That’s less space for content, and fewer people reporting and editing the news.
The math behind these calculations is uncomplicated. Newsprint is generally a newspaper’s second-largest expense line, after payroll. Because of that Washington paper mill’s filing, the U.S. Commerce Department put in force duties bumping up that expense line by 20 to 30 percent, according to the NMA. Think about that calculation. Is it any wonder that papers are looking at decreasing the size of their products, cutting back distribution, increasing prices, which accelerate the transition to digital and also laying off staff?
What's occurred, not just for newspapers and pulp and paper mills, but for readers like you, has moved Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, to introduce a bill last week that attempts to bring some sanity to this situation. Their state has been hit hard on all sides. In just the past four years, nearly half the state’s 11 pulp and paper mills – which produce a variety of paper products, not just newsprint – have closed due to declining demand, and about 2,500 people have lost their jobs. (Nationally the newspaper business has diminished from 400,000 jobs to 175,000 jobs from 2001 to 2016.)
Their bill would suspend the collection of tariffs immediately. It would have Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross study both the newsprint and newspaper industries, including how trends have affected not only local news coverage but even local business advertisers. Ross would then submit a report with recommendations based on the study to Congress and to President Donald Trump. Trump, in turn, would read the recommendations and certify whether the tariffs are in the nation’s economic interests.
The assumption, of course, is that the study will show the tariffs are creating far greater job losses and economic damage than are being protected at that paper mill. And that the tariffs, already being collected before being reviewed and set in final form over the next four months, should be rescinded. And if so, that Trump will be moved to change direction on this.
Perhaps. But perhaps not, given the president’s contentious relationship with the media, despite his battles having been with the national media rather than the local daily and weekly publications across the country that are likely to suffer the most. But then again, a president who despite his tough trade talk is suddenly moving to save jobs in China might be persuaded to help a newspaper business that he regularly reviles, even as he feeds off it.
None of this can come to pass, however, until the bill is approved. It represents the only hope that local newspapers have. Congress must approve it, and the president must sign it. It only promises a clear-eyed look at the stakes, and a decision.
What’s at stake is more than an expense line. A free press, and informed electorate, depends on a healthy press.