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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By Randy Keck

Randy Keck, publisher of The Community News in Aledo, is a former president of the Texas Press Association. He serves as Texas Ambassador to the National Newspaper Association.