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December 15, 2018

Tariffs vs. a free press

June 22, 2018
Once profitable newspapers now survive on the thinnest of margins in the digital age. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he was not yet President.

His point, about the virtue of a free press and the vice of crony capitalism, remains valid. The tension between the media and government helps, at least in theory, to keep everyone honest.




Now a trade dispute with Canada — launched by a single paper mill owned by New York-based venture capitalists — threatens to damage the whole system.

NORPAC, a newsprint manufacturer based in Washington State and owned by New York-based One Rock Capital, says tax breaks and subsidies given to its Canadian competitors by their government constitute unfair advantages needing to be remedied by protective, retaliatory tariffs.

Thus far, they have persuaded the U.S. Commerce Department to put tariffs in place. Sizable tariffs, of as much as 32%.

Given the shift to online media over the last two decades, newspapers were already in a financial pinch. Once-profitable papers now survive on the thinnest of margins. The increase in the cost of newsprint forced by these tariffs threatens to shrink profits further or even erase completely.

What NORPAC has done — and it is alone among U.S. newsprint manufacturers in asking for relief — threatens not just an industry that employs more than 600,000 people but endangers institutions that are a vital resource to millions of Americans.

The International Trade Commission is looking into whether NORPAC complaint is valid. Its preliminary examination found the real issue might be the costs NORPAC incurs shipping its product to other parts of the country, not Canadian newsprint dumping. Until it makes a final decision, though, the tariffs stand.

Congress, fortunately, isn’t taking it lying down. On June 8, five members from upstate New York — Republicans Elise Stefanik, John Katko and John Faso, and Democrats Brian Higgins and Sean Patrick Maloney — sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and ITC Chairman Rhonda Schmidtlein calling out the danger of a permanent levy, saying it “has the potential to destabilize the industry and accelerate the decline of print news media.”

They go on to say the tariffs could do significant damage to local journalism, which “should not be infringed upon by the claims of a single producer.”

They’re right to call out the crony capitalism that seems to be at work here. And they’re right to sound a wider alarm about newspapers in crisis.

The digital revolution has already killed more than 100,000 jobs in the publishing industry. More and more, the closures are spreading. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tampa Tribune are just two big-city papers that have ceased operations in the digital age. Independently owned newspapers are treading water, as are smaller chains.

This isn’t about elite journalists in coastal media bubbles, either — the kind President Trump likes to mock. Last year, the Evening News and Medford Daily Mercury in Massachusetts ceased operations after almost 140 years. In South Carolina, The Calhoun Times closed up shop after 124 years.

We are looking at an extinction-level event for many of the watchdogs that keep the keenest eyes on local government.

Middle America is justifiably tired of slick operators representing special interests rigging things in Washington for their benefit rather than everyone’s; that’s one of the themes that got Trump elected.

The more newspapers disappear, the easier it will be for companies like NORPAC to use trade remedies to help themselves at the expense of the many. After all, where will people read about these abuses of trade rules?




Roff is a former senior writer for United Press International.




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