Our Opinion: Newsprint tariffs harm journalism and democracy

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Thanks to Washington bureaucrats, freedom of the press is becoming considerably more expensive.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has tagged Canadian paper imports with tariffs of up to 32 percent that will make the newsprint you're reading a lot costlier for us to buy. Canada supplies the majority of paper stock that's used to produce American newspapers, including your Wilson Times. Paper mills don't absorb that import tax; they pass it along to their customers.

Leaving aside a discussion of free trade and its merits, even proponents of protectionism find this tariff a tough sell. Unlike the Trump administration's duties on steel and aluminum, which came at the behest of a beleaguered industry, just one American paper mill - North Pacific Paper Co. in Washington state - asked government to meddle in the newsprint market.

North Pacific is an outlier, a renegade. To date, it is the only domestic paper producer seeking to hobble foreign competitors, and the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade group representing its industry peers, opposes the tariffs. How did one squeaky wheel get so much grease? 

Canada is hardly a brazen currency manipulator like China daring regulators to hold its feet to the fire. Our neighbor to the north has been a reliable trading partner, and small bumps in the road from Washington to Ottawa are better smoothed through diplomacy than impulsive border taxes.

Why should the average American care about a hike in the price of Canadian newsprint? 

For newspaper readers, it could lead to subscription price increases, fewer pages in the paper and fewer syndicated features like the comics, puzzles and advice columns that many consider a highlight of their morning. It also could force newspapers to lay off employees, and some may even be taxed out of business.

If you don't subscribe to a daily or weekly newspaper, the tariffs and their consequences could still diminish the quality of your civic life. Fewer watchdog reporters keeping tabs on the local, state and federal government increases the chance that corruption will go unchecked. Even folks who get most of their news from social media will quickly realize that local papers are the engine behind accurate, credible reporting.

"Newspapers remain vital civic assets - nobody else will report on your community with the depth and breadth of a newspaper - but publishing them is not an easy business, and these tariffs will make it even harder," writes Paul Tash, president and CEO of The Tampa Bay Times' parent company. "This is a kick in the teeth."

It's no secret that newspapers face challenges to remain profitable in the post-recession internet age. Print advertising, the bread and butter for papers large and small, has plunged 50 percent industry-wide in the past 10 years. Papers have reinvented themselves as digital media companies with robust website and mobile offerings, so much so that combined print and online readership in many markets is dwarfing past circulation peaks. Yet the gains in audience don't always translate to dollars and cents.

The Wilson Times remains strong, solvent and sustainable. These tariffs will hurt us, but a gut punch we can endure may be a knockout blow for small dailies and weeklies struggling to keep the presses running. That's a threat to the future of journalism and the unique role it plays in American democracy.

We're proud to stand with Stop Tariffs on Printers and Publishers, a coalition of industry groups representing more than 600,000 workers, in asking Congress and the International Trade Commission to reject shortsighted border taxes on Canadian paper products that endanger U.S. and North Carolina journalists' jobs.

Newspapers and their trade associations can't fight this battle alone. Newspaper readers, who are more politically aware and boast higher rates of civic engagement than their peers, may be the key to convincing Congress to declare a cease fire in this hasty trade war.

Contact your congressman and senators today and let them know you don't want tariffs getting between you and your morning paper.

  • Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District - 202-225-3101, 2808 Rayburn House Office Building, https://butterfield.house.gov/contact, Twitter: @GKButterfield
  • Rep. George Holding, R-2nd District - 202-225-3032, 1110 Longworth House Office Building, https://holding.house.gov/contact/, Twitter: @RepHolding
  • Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., 202-224-3154, 217 Russell Senate Office Building, https://www.burr.senate.gov/contact/email, Twitter: @SenatorBurr
  • Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., 202-224-6342, 185 Dirksen Senate Office Building, https://www.tillis.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-me, Twitter: @SenThomTillis