The latest casualty in Trump's trade wars: the free press

When President Donald Trump announced this month that he would slap heavy tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, we called it the epitome of lunacy. After all, about 80 times more Americans have jobs in industries that depend on steel or materials made of steel than in steel production. Apparently we were wrong; the Trump administration can get much more myopic than that in its pursuit of trade wars. Two weeks later, the Commerce Department responded to a complaint by one employer of fewer than 400 people in Washington State and announced import tariffs that badly hurt companies that employ about 180,000 Americans coast to coast, a 450-1 ratio of harm to help.

Those grounds alone should be enough to end the conversation, but consider this. President Trump justified his metal tariffs with a spurious claim that they were necessary to safeguard our national security. But these new tariffs threaten another vital American interest — the free press.

The Washington company in question is a paper mill, and the tariffs — ranging up to 32 percent — are on Canadian newsprint. That means a spike in prices for our industry’s single biggest expense at a time when we are facing a historic shift in our business model, and the results could be catastrophic, particularly for small publishers.

It is true that few American paper mills produce newsprint these days, but Canadian paper dumping is not to blame. Rather, it’s the shift in news consumers’ habits that has accompanied the rise of digital media that’s behind the shift. American newspapers use about 75 percent less paper than they did in 2000 as papers — The Sun included — have shrunk their print products and moved more and more content exclusively online. Most American suppliers of newsprint have shifted operations to products that are in higher demand, and with the exception of the North Pacific Paper Corporation of Longview, Wash., none of the remaining U.S. newsprint manufacturers support this tariff. Norpac’s corporate owners — a New York-based hedge fund — may see short term profit in protectionism, but the rest of the industry sees a threat to the viability of its biggest consumer.

We make no bones about our self interest in this case. If you’re reading a physical copy of The Sun, the paper in your hands came from a mill in Quebec City. We don’t have much choice about it — no mills in the American northeast produce newsprint, and we use a lot of it. The Sun and its sister papers in Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere used about 137,000 metric tons of newsprint in 2017; pre-tariffs, newsprint was selling for a national average of about $570 per metric ton, according to Bloomberg, so the tariffs stand to add up to tens of millions in new costs company-wide. That means fewer resources for us to expose public corruption, discover the waste of tax dollars, analyze the Orioles’ starting rotation, review local restaurants or otherwise chronicle life in Maryland as we have for 181 years.

The future of our industry is digital, and we are working hard to adapt our journalism and our business model to that reality. But print remains a vital part of our present, in terms of both our revenue and our ability to serve our most loyal customers, many of whom love of holding a newspaper in their hands. These tariffs would make the already difficult transition we must make as a business much harder, and we are hardly alone in that position. A group of 1,100 local newspapers has petitioned the Trump administration to stop these tariffs, so far to no avail.

The Trump administration, which has in the past branded journalists as enemies of the American people, may not feel sympathy for the need to maintain a vibrant, free, independent press. We hope you do, and we hope our representatives in Congress will as well.

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