Don Rogers: Paper tariff won’t help US
May 11, 2018
Lord knows, this has been drilled into my head: A newspaper's two greatest expenses are people and paper.
For now anyway, cheap robots can't handle much of the people work, much as at least a few readers think they'd prefer robotic reporting — that is, "objective," considering human beings can't help but tell their stories with a certain flair.
Or is it that we're drones for some hive mind slyly bending our communities to a secret cabal's will?
This chem-trailish affliction seems to bloom like hay fever during election seasons. A letter not running soon enough here, poor positioning of a story there, or maybe the too-kind wording of a headline for the wrong candidate, mischosen picture of a favorite. All diabolically subtle, sly, calculated. Never mind the other candidates' supporters suspect exactly the same evil, only against them. The frenzy can approach hysteria.
The high stakes they see root from what they know. The newspaper really matters.
Steep newsprint price increases thanks to a new tariff may prove the undoing of smaller papers far away from the Trumpist bashing of what is found in the pages of the "elite." Maybe bigger newspapers, too. Some are approaching the edge, I worry. The Denver Post comes to mind. And The Bee.
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Midwestern farmers aren't the only ones at risk with the rise of tariffs to "protect" the United States from other countries dumping cheap goods on us. Surprise, surprise, campaign slogans prove simpler and more satisfying than reality.
In the case of newsprint, there aren't and there won't be enough paper mills in America to handle even the diminished demand for what makes the paper the paper. The market has evolved so that Canada has become crucial for our supply.
Our country's mills already were running at 97 percent of capacity. Maybe in part that's why only one of the five left in the United States pushed for a newsprint tariff — a mill in Washington state owned by a hedge fund well connected to that other Washington.
The Commerce Department determined in a preliminary investigation this year that one Canadian paper company was undercharging and so has imposed tariffs increasing the price of newsprint by nearly 30 percent, so far.
Canada subsidizes its lumber industry, and that has hurt U.S. companies, which don't enjoy similar benefits. Those tariffs have dramatically increased, too, and you might have seen how much lumber locally costs now. Newsprint is made of waste material from logging and recycled paper, pulp.
My industry's experts and lobbyists point to a 75 percent decrease in newsprint use in the past decade as the real driver of price. Fewer papers using fewer pages because of the tariffs won't help the American mills much. Two of them are owned by Canadian companies, by the way.
The timing isn't good for a medium that has endured for some 500 years and finally is feeling the wheels of progress, brave words aside. The business is under strain despite demand for news and views never running higher. And for now anyway, Facebook and Google are happy to be ticks on the dog, benefiting from expensive reporting without having to pay for it.
There are other consequences of the digital age for papers, which after all provide the bulk of reporting online, too. Consumers want their news for free and advertisers are agnostic about how they market, just so they reach consumers.
So we're in a transformational era, which has disrupted online-only news media even more than the so-called legacy outlets: newspapers, radio, television.
It's all fascinating, and terrifying up close. And to imagine only a decade ago the business of community papers was booming like never before.
Then the Great Recession hit. Business has gotten far more … interesting since. Brick-and-mortar retail stores and just about every professional service you can imagine face much the same. The digital disruption has churned into whitewater.
The newsprint tariffs won't help the American economy, won't protect the mills, won't save local papers. They will deliver body blows and knock some newspapers out of business entirely.
Meantime, our bigger brethren are going through more layoffs to help cope with their business declines. The Sacramento Bee is the most proximate to us. Other neighbors are dropping the number of days they provide a print edition. Auburn in December went from five days a week to two. They're not alone.
In Truckee, we've gone from two days a week to one, the Friday edition. This was less a question of newsprint than focusing on the stronger day, but the paper cost was a factor, too.
In Grass Valley, The Union so far is holding to the traditional six days in print, and every minute online. We've also managed to hold onto an addition of one position last year to our news staff.
It's tough enough these days, even with encouraging recent research showing legacy media just as effective as digital and a combination of both the real secret sauce.
The tariff is the fly in the soup. It could ruin everything.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Truckee Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.