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David Robinson: Newsprint tariffs overturned in key victory for industry

Newspapers got a reprieve on Wednesday.

Tariffs on imported Canadian newsprint imposed by the Trump administration earlier this year were overturned, delivering an important victory for newspapers and news readers.

The unanimous decision by the International Trade Commission removes a tariff that had forced the newspaper industry to cut back on printing and to reduce staff at a time when its finances already were squeezed.

"I am very, very happy," said Warren T. Colville, the publisher and president of The Buffalo News. "It was hurting newspapers tremendously."

The Commerce Department initially imposed tariffs of up to 22 percent on Canadian newsprint at the end of March at the request of North Pacific Paper Co., a Washington state paper producer owned by a New York hedge fund. The tariffs were reduced slightly by the Commerce Department earlier this month.

But the International Trade Commission, in its ruling on Wednesday, overturned the tariffs completely, saying that it has "determined that a U.S. industry is not materially injured or threatened with material injury by reason of imports of uncoated groundwood paper from Canada."

The decision means that Canadian paper producers can stop paying tariffs on imports of newsprint, which had been in effect since January. The newspaper industry argued that the digital disruption was the main cause of the decline in demand for newsprint – not imports from Canada.

U.S. tariffs on Canadian newsprint struck down

Those tariffs, which raised costs for newspaper companies at a time when they already were struggling financially, were blamed for contributing to staffing cutbacks at newspapers, including the New York Daily News, which slashed the size of its newsroom staff in half last month. Other papers have reduced the number of days that they publish or are reducing the number of pages they publish in response to the higher costs.

“These tariffs were extremely harmful to our regional newspapers – the lifeblood of our local communities," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a longtime critic of the tariffs. "The International Trade Commission made the exactly right decision today to completely eliminate them."

Newsprint typically is the second-biggest cost for newspapers and the tariff covered the uncoated groundwood paper that typically makes up about two-thirds of all newsprint. Newsprint prices have increased by 25 percent to 30 percent since the tariffs were imposed.

The ruling is "great news for hometown newspapers in Western New York and nationwide," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who opposed the tariffs during a hearing the trade commission held last month. "This is a victory for a free press."

Higgins said he thinks the Trump administration's battles with the news media were at least partly behind the tariff.

"Ninety-nine percent of the trade between the U.S. and Canada is tariff-free. Why was this tariff imposed? I think if you look into it, you can see the reason: It was more political," Higgins said.

Colville praised Schumer and Higgins for their efforts to oppose the tariffs.

"I don't think this would have happened without them," he said.

The tariffs also drove up costs at other commercial printers and book publishers that used the type of uncoated paper covered by the duties. The higher prices that resulted from the tariffs cut into demand for printed material, such as advertising inserts and flyers.

"Small businesses that are part of the printing industry can breathe a sigh of relief," said Michael Makin, the president and CEO of the Printing Industries of America trade group.

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