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Tariff on newsprint hits newspapers hard

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The Post and Courier of Charleston published this editorial June 13.

The trade war with Canada over steel, aluminum and milk understandably grabs the headlines. But flying under the radar is the battle over Canadian newsprint, a skirmish that’s hurting businesses and costing jobs.

In January, the U.S. Commerce Department, responding to a complaint from a New York private equity firm that bought a Washington state mill, imposed a 6.2 percent tariff on imports of Canadian newsprint, then added another 22 percent in March. And U.S. newspapers, to put it mildly, are suffering mightily.

That’s why a group of newspaper executives will travel to Washington, D.C., this week to try to persuade lawmakers to get the Commerce Department to back off. The tariff already has prompted layoffs – newsprint is typically a newspaper’s biggest operating cost behind labor – and caused some newspapers to reduce their number of pages.

Thousands of U.S. newspaper jobs are hanging in the balance.

The Washington state paper mill employs fewer than 300 people. Like some other recent tariffs, the cure is worse than the disease.

Never mind that most U.S. mills quit producing newsprint more than a decade ago as demand fell and traditional newspaper subscribers migrated increasingly to digital news. Or that Canada produces about 60 percent of all newsprint.

So far, the trade group News Media Alliance, representing some 1,350 U.S. newspapers, has unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission to have the case dismissed.

“For an industry already severely challenged, this is very painful, unfair and totally unnecessary,” Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger said in a story Monday in his newspapers, adding that the tariff was estimated to increase his operating costs by $2 million annually.

About 50 newspaper executives with the trade group will make their case to lawmakers who are set to testify before the trade commission on July 17. After that, the Commerce Department would make a decision to keep the tariff or lift it.

A decision is expected by late summer, but relief can’t come soon enough. While the largest newspapers may be able to tolerate the increased operating costs, some smaller papers are in danger of failing. In April, the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper and winner of 12 Pulitzer Prizes, laid off about 50 employees, citing increased newsprint costs.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, has asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to use his authority to suspend the tariff, a power the president also holds. Separately, the House and Senate are considering bills that would roll back the import duty pending a study of its economic effects.

Newspapers still depend on revenue from their print editions, and the tariff is making the industry’s already difficult transition to digital even harder. We need our newspapers and our newspaper jobs more than we need U.S.-produced newsprint.

Our democracy also needs an informed public, a service that newspapers provide to their communities with more depth than other media.

So it’s no comfort that fewer than half of the newspapers that existed in 2001 ago are still in business, and the industry, which employed nearly 412,000 people then, now employs less than half that, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The newsprint tariff isn’t the only problem newspapers are facing, but it is one the administration can and should address quickly. Lift the tariff on Canadian newsprint.