It isn’t that easy to drop everything in the middle of the week and fly to Washington. If you’re a community newspaper publisher, going anywhere in the middle of the week is a challenge. That is when the newspaper has to be edited, wrapped up in color, printed, labeled and distributed to readers.
People in Mayville, Wis., where I publish the Dodge County Pionier, count on my paper. It is how they find out what is happening in town. We don’t have a local TV station. Facebook and Google are here, but the internet has no journalists in my town.
That is why I did dropped everything one day in July and flew to the nation’s capital to testify before the International Trade Commission. It probably surprised my readers that international trade is important to my little weekly newspaper. But it is. In fact, this commission holds in its hands the future of local journalism in Mayville. It holds the same reins for the future of news and information in thousands of small towns across the U.S. I went to ask the commissioners to stop taxing our paper. This tax is hurting the Pionier, its readers and Mayville.
The paper we print on is newsprint, known in the industry as uncoated groundwood paper. Most of it comes from Canada. Although there are five paper mills in the U.S. that make this paper, American newspapers have also used Canadian paper for more than a century. It simply isn’t possible in the continental U.S. to make enough newsprint to supply the needs of U.S. newspaper readers.
Last January, the Department of Commerce slapped a tax, better known as a tariff, on this Canadian paper, and then hit it again in March. The government was responding to a lawsuit by a single paper mill, owned by a New York investment firm, alleging that the Canadian competition was affecting its profits. The ITC allowed the tax to stay in place while it investigates. For much of this year, American publishers have been receiving continual price increases from their printers, who have been trying all year to adjust to tariffs of more than 30 percent on the paper they use to print our editions. In early August, the federal government said the tariffs could be lowered somewhat in September, but they still would be about 20 percent. This newsprint price increase is very hard for small town newspapers to absorb.
It is the ITC that ultimately decides whether these tariffs will continue at all. Its job is to figure out whether tariffs would help U.S. producers. U.S. producers — the five U.S. mills — certainly face challenges. But those come from the fact that most large newspapers have cut back on paper usage dramatically. There is less demand for newsprint in the U.S., so lower prices have resulted. It is not unfair competition, but natural market forces, while digital editions take over the larger newspaper world that affect the papermakers.
A tariff to punish Canada won’t create more U.S. papermaking jobs. Larger publications will move faster to digital so they can buy less paper. Smaller ones like mine will simply shrink and may go away entirely, leaving their towns with no local paper. This tariff just hurts the Pionier, and newspapers like it.
The ITC will accept comments on this tax until Aug. 20. If you want to let the commissioners know what you think, you can find a contact form at www.usitc.gov.
Andrew Johnson is publisher of the Dodge County (Wis.) Pionier and incoming president of the National Newspaper Association.