National Newspaper Association President-Elect Andrew S. Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County (WI) Pionier, yesterday told the International Trade Commission that tariffs on Canadian newsprint had inflicted severe damage upon community newspapers.
Johnson appeared with seven other witnesses to oppose 32 percent tariffs assessed against Canadian paper producers by the Department of Commerce earlier this year. Other witnesses were from Canadian producers and printers or publishers speaking as part of the Stop Tariffs On Printers and Publishers (STOPP) coalition. Tampa Bay Times Publisher Paul Tash joined Johnson as the other newspaper witness, speaking on behalf of his newspaper and the News Media Alliance. NMA has been the organizer and manager of the coalition, of which NNA is a member, with Printing Industries of America and a large group of businesses and associations that use or produce newsprint.
Yesterday’s hearing occurred near the end of a dual federal agency examination of the impact of Canadian paper upon U.S. producers of various types of uncoated groundwood paper, which includes newsprint. A complaint of unfair trade competition was brought last year by NORPAC, a Washington State newsprint producer that was purchased recently by a New York investment firm. A decision by ITC is due in mid-August and a final determination by the Department of Commerce on the level of tariffs, if any, will be in September.
Johnson said increases in printing and production prices had already caused him to reduce staff, shrink his newspaper’s page size and shutter one office to public access. He discounted speculation in news reports that the Commerce Department may believe newspapers can simply raise the price of subscriptions to recoup the tariff costs.
He said: “Absorbing major cost increases is not as simple as marking up the price of a can of soup. We print our newspaper for our readers, but readers do not pay the primary cost of producing a newspaper. Our operating cash comes from local business advertisers …. Expecting my advertisers to pay more is tough. First, they may be dealing with their own rising newsprint costs if they print their own ads for insertion into my paper. Second, I face advertising competition from Facebook and Google. (Advertisers) cannot pay me much more.
“So what can I do?
"This is what my colleagues tell me they are doing now: they are freezing all hiring and trying to cut pages or page sizes. If they have dailies publishing seven days a week now they may drop to four days …. If the tariffs continue, some publishers say they are considering closing newspapers or selling newspapers.”
Johnson said his readers were outraged when they learned that the federal government was putting their local newspaper in jeopardy.
“People in the middle of the country where I live want trade laws that strengthen our communities. The newsprint tariffs do much more harm than good.”
NorPac has claimed that unfair trade practices caused it to shut down one of its three paper-making machines last year and that Canadian competition forces prices too low for it to fairly compete. Other paper makers, however, said NorPac’s mill suffered from an environmental problem that curtailed production and that in fact it was U.S. producers who were cutting prices in a competitive market as overall demand for newsprint shrinks.
Tash said the tariffs were putting newspapers like his into serious trouble.
“At many local newspapers, the water is already at our chins, and these tariffs will push it higher …. Already this year, we laid off 50 employees, including some veteran reporters and editors. Newspapers are hurting and our pain will spread inevitably to our suppliers. Very soon, these tariffs will start harming the very companies they are supposed to protect. That is why almost every American newsprint manufacturer is opposed them. It’s not clear to me why this case was launched, but I do hope the commission will bring it to an end,” he said.
NNA President Susan Rowell, publisher of the Lancaster (SC) News, said NNA had also written the ITC to urge relief from the tariffs, explaining why the trade sanctions would inevitably destroy the customers of the very newsprint plants that NorPac said it was trying to protect. She thanked Johnson for his work, and complimented NNA members on their vigorous advocacy on the issue.
“The existential threat from these tariffs has mobilized our industry like nothing I have seen in my newspaper career,” she said. “We are experiencing historically high increases in production costs, shortages of supply and grave uncertainties because of this terribly unfortunate case. It is hard to see how anyone benefits from this situation. Long-term, the tariffs are devouring the customer base for the paper industry. Andrew took two valuable days away from his business at a tough time to do this work for us. In addition, our Congressional Action Team has devoted hours to helping members of Congress to understand this threat, and we have been gratified that several members in their testimony yesterday thanked NNA members for educating them on this threat. Many newspaper executives working individually and through state press associations have stepped up to help the industry. We are indebted to all of you and to NMA for its leadership on this issue.”
In addition to the STOPP coalition witnesses, the ITC heard from 19 members of Congress who appeared to urge the commission to examine the injury to U.S. newspapers. Typically, trade law cases do not automatically require analysis of the impact of sanctions upon consumers and downstream users, but both members of Congress and opponents of the tariff said this case was unusual in its threat to domestic jobs and civic engagement through newspapers.
Commission staff said the appearance of such a large cohort of Congressional witnesses was uncommon in ITC cases.
Appearing at the hearing, in order, were:
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine
Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia
Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi
Sen. Angus King, Maine
Rep. Jim Cooper, 5th District, Tennessee
Rep. Danny Davis, 7th District, Illinois
Rep. Brian Higgins, 26th District, New York
Rep. Bill Flores, 17th District, Texas
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, 3rd District, Tennessee
Rep. David McKinley, 1st District, West Virginia
Rep. John Moolenaar, 4th District, Michigan
Rep. Bruce Poliquin, 2nd District, Maine
Rep. David Trott, 11th District, Michigan
Rep. Robert Aderholt, 4th District, Alabama
Rep. Phil Roe, 1st District, Tennessee
Sen. Doug Jones, Alabama
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 5th District, Washington
Sen. Robert Casey, Pennsylvania;
Rep. Ralph Norman, 5th District, South Carolina
– From National Newspaper Association, nnaweb.org