WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from both parties are pressing the Trump administration to end its tariff on Canadian newsprint, a levy that's pushing newspapers across the country to cut back on printing and staff amid an already-difficult financial outlook for the print media.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer – a New York Democrat who first sounded the alarm about the tariffs in January – said Wednesday that he recently pressed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the issue.
"Local newspapers are like the glue of our communities. They bring people together," Schumer said.
Noting that the tariffs also threaten major printers such as Quad Graphics of Saratoga Springs, which employs 850, Schumer said: "We just can't have this. The viability of our upstate newspapers is at stake."
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have also raised alarms recently about the harm the tariff is doing.
They are by no means alone. At an International Trade Commission hearing last week, Higgins joined 18 other members of Congress in opposing the newsprint tariffs – and 13 of them were Republicans.
"Sadly, I believe that levying tariffs, particularly on newsprint, could accelerate the decline of newspapers and local news," Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, told the trade commission.
The Commerce Department imposed the preliminary tariffs of up to 22.16 percent on Canadian newsprint at the end of March at the request of North Pacific Paper Co., or NORPAC, a Washington state paper producer owned by a New York hedge fund.
"President Trump made it clear from the beginning that we will vigorously administer our trade laws to provide U.S. industry with relief from unfair trade practices," Ross, the Commerce Department secretary, said at the time.
The Commerce Department is set to decide next week whether to make the tariffs permanent, and at last week's hearing, NORPAC argued that that's exactly what should happen.
"NORPAC has experienced significant negative effects as a result of dumped and subsidized imports of uncoated groundwood paper from Canada," Craig Anneberg, NORPAC's CEO, told the trade commission. "Low-priced imports from Canada have taken sales volume from us, depressed our prices, and also undersell our uncoated groundwood paper in the United States."
The rest of the U.S. paper industry has refused to join in the call for tariffs on Canadian imports, largely because most U.S. paper mills don't even make uncoated groundwood paper, or newsprint, anymore.
That's left U.S. newspapers, particularly those in the eastern part of the country, relying on imports from Ontario and Quebec. But since the 22.16 percent duty was slapped on those imports, prices for newsprint have skyrocketed about 30 percent overall, putting great pressure on newspapers that are already struggling with the loss of print advertising.
Schumer said the rising cost of newsprint was a factor in this week's decision by the New York Daily News to cut its editorial staff in half.
And Higgins told the International Trade Commission that the tariffs were affecting newspapers throughout his district.
"Newspapers are unique in comparison to other mediums in that they are the most cited source citizens use for news about their local town or city, arts and culture, or schools and education," Higgins told the trade commission. "This is why I am concerned about the imposition of duties on newsprint."
Other New York lawmakers to express concerns about the tariffs include Republicans Reps. Tom Reed of Corning, John Katko of Camillus, Elise Stefanik of Willsboro and John Faso of Kinderhook, as well as Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring.
"We've been in touch with the International Trade Commission to send the message that this issue is very important to the news industry," Reed said.
If the Commerce Department decides next week whether to make the tariffs permanent, the International Trade Commission would rule in mid-September if those tariffs are proper and should move forward. Reed said that even if the tariffs are made permanent, it's possible that some companies will be able to apply for and get exemptions to them.
The debate over the newsprint tariffs comes at a time when President Trump has been escalating his attacks on what he calls the "fake news" media, and Cuomo suggested the tariffs and Trump's tirades could be related.
"President Trump's tariffs on newsprint are an obvious economic attack on the First Amendment from an administration unable to hide its contempt for the media," Cuomo said in a statement earlier this week.
But Schumer, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, downplayed that possibility, noting that the tariffs were imposed by the Commerce Department and not Trump himself.
Asked if Trump's contempt for the media could have prompted the tariffs, Schumer said: "You never know, but I don't see any evidence of that."