Trump’s revenge: How tariffs on Canadian paper are killing journalism

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It is the height of irony. President Trump, who detests the news media so much that he labeled them “the enemy of the American people,” has proved to be better for the journalism business than free scratch tickets tucked inside the “A” section. Thanks to the so-called Trump effect, newspapers and magazines have reported digital-subscription gains, cable news audiences have grown, and nonprofits such as NPR and ProPublica have gotten a boost.

But now Trump is getting his revenge. The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint, as the grade of paper used in newspaper publishing is known, earlier this year, according to CNN.com. The tariffs have resulted in a 30 percent rise in the price of newsprint, which is the last thing the struggling business needs.

How bad is it? According to Tampa Bay Times chairman and chief executive Paul Tash, the tariff could increase the amount of money his paper spends on newsprint by $3 million for the year. As a result, the Times is eliminating about 50 jobs.

“These tariffs will hurt our readers, because they create pressure to raise our prices, and they will force publishers to re-examine every other expense,” Tash wrote, adding: “These tariffs will also hurt our employees, because payroll is the only expense that is bigger than newsprint.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Tampa Bay Times is not one of those corporate chain dailies controlled by a hedge fund. Rather, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, and is one of our more highly regarded papers. Tash would not be cutting unless there were no alternative.

At one time the price of newsprint was a regularly recurring lament in the newspaper business. From the 1970s until about 2000, as papers expanded their coverage and classified-ad sections grew fat, the cost of paper exerted a drag on what otherwise would have been even higher profits. Newspaper owners responded by shrinking the size of their pages. The modern broadsheet is not very broad. I recently got a copy of the Mashpee Enterprise, one of a small group of old-fashioned community weeklies on Cape Cod. The width was enormous — nearly 14 inches — and it reminded me of what newspapers looked like when I was growing up. By contrast, The Boston Globe is 12 inches across, typical for the industry these days but tiny by historical standards.

Then, too, the price of newsprint wasn’t supposed to matter by 2018. Surely papers would have gone all-digital by now. As we know, it hasn’t happened. Although papers like the Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have bet the future on digital subscriptions, they remain tied at the present to the revenues generated by their print editions. Print advertising, though plummeting, has maintained its value better than digital advertising, and it exists outside the death grip of Facebook and Google. Print subscribers still outnumber digital subscribers, too, and they pay a lot more — although obviously the cost of printing and distribution is higher too.

All of which created a situation that left the newspaper business vulnerable to the latest depredations of the Trump administration. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the current situation originated with a complaint filed with the Commerce Department by the North Pacific Paper Company, known as Norpac, which is based in Washington State. Norpac claimed that Canadian newsprint manufacturers have an unfair advantage over their American counterparts. But though Norpac argued that the Canadians paper mills should be punished because they receive government subsidies, other American newsprint manufacturers disagree — and argue that Norpac is seeking short-term profits for the benefit of its (you guessed it) hedge-fund owner. The details were reported by Bloombergin late December.

Norpac’s single plant employs about 300 people, the CNN report says. Meanwhile, the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 newspapers in North America, says that some 600,000 American workers are dependent on Canadian paper for their jobs at newspapers and in commercial printing. Norpac, according to an op-ed piece written by David Chavern, president and CEO of the alliance, “is not acting in the best interests of newsprint consumers or the U.S. paper industry at large — it is acting in its own interest and no one else’s.”

The alliance is hoping to persuade the Trump administration to reverse the tariff on Canadian newsprint. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand, the president has been flexible to the point of chaotic with his on-again, off-again approach to which tariffs he wants to impose and which countries he wants to punish. On the other hand, he may see the newsprint tariff as a two-fer: Not only does he get to make life more difficult for the newspapers he so loathes, but the move benefits his fellow wealthy plutocrats as well.

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