newspaper economics

Proposed newsprint tariff could be devastating for local newspapers

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Edward Carrington, whom he had sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In the letter, Jefferson stressed the importance of a free press, specifically newspapers.

Jefferson understood that one of the most important checks on government power was a well-informed electorate.

“The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty,” Jefferson wrote.

As the publisher of a community newspaper for more than 20 years, I understand the importance, even in 2018, of what thousands of newspapers in the United States provide for their readers.

Yes, we publish all the inside information on last Friday night’s football game; there are photos of the latest theatre production at the high school; and there are notices about the next Lions Club meeting.

But in addition, we are there at the school board meetings, the city council meetings, and other functions of government, in your place. We are the eyes and ears – and often the advocates – for a well-informed electorate.

In addition, many local businesses – the “mom and pop” stores in your community, rely on the newspaper to deliver their advertising messages at a reasonable cost.

Social media has proven itself unreliable – there is no one vetting the information you find there. And despite the growth of online news, the vast majority of people still get their local news and information via ink on paper.

So it is especially troubling that the U.S. Department of Commerce is considering trade sanctions (tariffs) on newsprint – the actual bulk paper all those newspapers are printed on – from Canada.

Canada has been a long-term partner with the United States when it comes to providing newsprint. In fact, Canada provides about 75 percent of the newsprint used in the U.S.

The root of the tariff proposal comes from one tiny newsprint mill in Washington State. Purchased by a New York hedge fund, the owners are now calling for tariffs, claiming Canada is unfairly pricing its product.

So let’s look at this in context: over the last 10 years or so, the demand for newsprint has declined. Several producers in the U.S. and Canada have either shut down their mills or they have re-tooled to produce more profitable products, such as corrugated paper products for boxes.

Not a single company is going to invest the tens of millions of dollars required to start a paper mill in those circumstances. And even if they did, it would take years to get up and running. And even if every idle mill magically started producing tomorrow, the U.S. would only be able to produce about 60 percent of the needed product.

The problem here is that tariffs are proposed for one reason – to benefit the hedge fund owners of one small mill in Washington. If the tariffs are imposed, newsprint could go up 50 percent, which would be devastating to your local newspaper and all who depend on it. The employment consequences would be catastrophic.

The effective result would be to punish those who seek to bring you your local news – “the only safeguard of public liberty.”

Toward the end of Jefferson’s letter to Carrington, he said “…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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Please help ensure that every person who wants to read a newspaper has the opportunity to do so.

I encourage you to contact your member of Congress to express opposition to this terrible proposal, and to ask them to express opposition to the Commerce Department.

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political coverage

Trump owes his victory to rural America

Sixteen months ago, Donald J. Trump surprised most of the world and probably himself by winning the presidential election. He couldn’t have done it without rural America.

The numbers in the exit polls were clear.  Trump won 62 percent of the rural vote, more than any modern president.  And here’s the statistic that shows just how rural his victory was: If you divide up the vote by the rural continuum of the Department of Agriculture – which has nine steps, from most rural to most urban – the smaller a place’s population, the stronger its vote for Trump, with one very small exception inside the error margin.

Trump’s percentage continued a recent trend of Republicans winning more and more of the rural vote. The biggest gain was actually made when Mitt Romney ran, but rural turnout was down significantly in 2012, especially among Democrats, so that boosted Romney’s percentage. But there was a better rural turnout in 2016 – and that was a key to Trump’s victory in the big swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That surge in turnout, and rural America’s choice of a man who is probably our most urban president ever, suggest that some big and bad things have been going on in our rural communities – some things that made them vote for him.

There are many was to measure those things, but the most important may be the simplest: Each year from 2012 through 2016, fewer people lived in rural America than the year before. Those losses were pretty small, but there had never been a decline in the total number of rural people, just in the rural percentage of the U.S. population.

Rural America is losing population mainly because it lost, during the Great Recession, jobs and businesses that have not come back. On Election Day 2016, employment in metropolitan areas was almost 5 percent higher than in the first quarter of 2008, the official start of the recession. But outside metro areas, employment was about 2.5 percent less.

We have seen that decline all over rural America, in closed factories, vacant storefronts and streams of workers commuting to more urbanized places. In many places, there is also a social and cultural decline, indicated by above-average drug use and divorces, poor health, increasing mortality rates among middle-aged whites, and a workforce that shrinks as disability payments expand. The Wall Street Journal did a good job documenting this several months ago in a package that said the statistics of rural America resemble those of inner cities 30 years ago.

This isn’t just about statistics.  It’s about feelings, which are usually more influential in an election.  In rural America, there is a documented resentment of urban elites, including the news media — reflecting a feeling that rural areas aren’t getting a fair shake from government and its trade deals, and are looked down upon.

So onto this landscape strode a brash billionaire whose TV reality show and business career had made him a household name, offering few specifics but promising to “make America great again” and acting as a tribune for disaffected people who were hungry for a politician who would improve their daily lives. In more than 40 years of covering politics, I have never seen a candidate who generated the reaction, depth of support and enthusiasm as Donald Trump, especially in rural areas.

There were half a million more rural votes last year than in 2012. In urban areas, there were two and a half million fewer votes. That second number illustrates the low enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.

Some have also argued that Trump’s victory had a lot to do with race and ethnicity, and there was evidence of that in rural areas, mainly dealing with immigration.

Rural Midwestern towns that have attracted many more immigrants—particularly Latinos—were Trump strongholds in the primaries and caucuses.  Just before the general election, Gallup polls showed Trump doing well in racially isolated white communities, and the pollsters concluded that Trump voters in those places appeared to be less motivated by economic concerns than by issues of race, ethnicity and immigration. Other researchers before and after the election came to the same conclusion about the national vote.

One thing last year’s election did was wake up a lot of national journalists to the problems of rural America. The Wall Street Journal is not the only national news outlet that’s paying more attention to rural places and their problems. My friend Chuck Todd of NBC told his audience on election night, as Trump began to win, “Rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!’”

So rural issues should get more attention, especially with a president who owes his victory partly to rural America. But politicians sometimes have to be reminded who they owe, and I think that is the case with rural America, because it is so diverse – too diverse to have a strong lobby that speaks for it.

Agriculture interests can help, but they can also hurt, by focusing more on increasing farmers’ wealth and just paying lip service to the needs of rural communities. There is a bipartisan Congressional Rural Caucus, but it has only 43 members – almost exactly 10 percent of the House of Representatives. Rural America is 15 percent of the population, and it needs a stronger voice. Rural newspapers could help provide it.

This column is adapted from a chapter written by Al Cross in “The Trump Presidency, Journalism and Democracy, published in February by Routledge.