Brandon Cox, an editor and publisher based in Scottsboro, Alabama is watching, in real time, the destruction of his newsrooms.
To print the Jackson County Sentinel and nine other community papers in the region, he needs about 450 tons of newsprint per year. In the last few months, the cost per ton has gone up by more than $250, from $550 to $800, meaning Cox is facing a roughly hundred-thousand-dollar annual hike in his annual operating expenses. To meet that cost, his papers have reduced page counts, run smaller photos, and scaled back distribution from five days a week to three days a week.
And it’s all because of recently imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint that came as a response to a complaint from a single mill in Washington state.
“It’s not helping and not having the effect that I believe they thought it would. In fact, it’s causing financial harm to a lot of us,” Cox said in an interview with The Daily Beast on his way to the airport to discuss this very issue on Capitol Hill.
Cox is hardly the only publisher bracing for an industry collapse as a result of the Trump administration’s tariffs. Across the country, newspapers are frantically warning about a wholesale gutting of outlets. That problem has been especially pronounced for more rural areas that lack broadband access and rely almost exclusively on print.
The threat has become so dire that it’s produced a dramatic role reversal. Usually in the practice of covering influence-peddling campaigns, newspapers are now engaging in a lobbying effort of their own, dispatching top officials to offices across the Capital to try and stem the bleeding.
“I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the News Media Alliance. “This is the most existential issue I’ve faced. No question about it. I’ve heard from so many publishers who are perplexed that this can actually occur. They’re stunned and they’re saddened. They really feel that our industry has already been cut enormously, almost to the bone. And there is no ability to cut further other than taking more staff out. And that means less news.”
Last week, Boyle helped arrange a fly-in for about 50 newspaper executives who, in turn, met with roughly 70 offices on the House and Senate side. This, he noted, was highly abnormal. Usually, newspaper executives wait to make their pitches when lawmakers are back in town, often before or after editorial board meetings. But the results of heightened tariffs has been catastrophic, with estimated costs rising as much as 30 percent.
“The newspaper industry has been more aggressive on this than anything I can remember,” said one senior Senate aide whose office was on the receiving end of that lobbying campaign. “They clearly view it as a dire circumstance.”
The problems for domestic papers began in January of this year, when the U.S. Department of Commerce announced a preliminary decision to impose tariffs on Canadian paper at the urging of one mill in Washington State. The North Pacific Paper Corp, or NORPAC, which is owned by New York hedge fund One Rock Capital Partners, pushed for tariffs by noting that investigators had found that Canada was unfairly dumping newsprint on the U.S. market and subsidizing its own paper mills.
NORPAC’s 300 employees stand to benefit from the tariffs on Canadian suppliers. But as newspaper industry officials have argued, the offsetting cost could be massive. There are some 600,000 community newspaper jobs across the country, many of which could be impacted.
Some, in fact, already have been. In the ensuing months, the Tampa Bay Times laid off about 50 of its staffers. The Salt Lake Tribune also announced in May that it was laying off 38 percent of its newsroom staff, although publisher Paul Huntsman did not explicitly say whether that was strictly due to the new tariffs. And the publisher of the Teton Times, a smaller publication on the border of North and South Dakota, said she had to cut two of her four employees at the paper on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
As print-reliant papers have begun cutting back, lawmakers have tried to put a pause on the new policy. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the PRINT Act (Protecting Rational Incentives In Newsprint Trade) on May 14th calling for suspending the imposed import taxes on groundwood paper until the Department of Commerce examined its effects on the broader printing and publishing industry. By last Friday, 24 Senators had signed on to co-sponsor the legislation, including fellow Republican Pat Toomey.
"The newspaper and publishing industries are facing unprecedented challenges and the tax on UGW paper could spell the end of numerous publishers across Pennsylvania,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
Toomey’s fellow Pennsylvanian, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in May to discuss his concerns about the impact to local papers. He followed up with a letter requesting a suspension of the tariffs “to avoid adverse impacts to our newspaper industry.”
Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), meanwhile, sent his own letter to Ross in April urging a review of the imposed tariffs and how they would impact community publications like the one Cox runs.
“For years, literally for years, I have been mourning the loss of daily newspapers across the country and particularly in Alabama,” Jones said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Friday. “We’re seeing a decline in the number of newspapers and by raising the cost of newsprint, the way these tariffs will do, we are going to hasten the demise of hometown newspapers and that is not something I want to see happen.”
On Tuesday, Jones and his fellow Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) will meet with Cox and five of his colleagues to discuss the crisis. Jones has also agreed to testify at a July 17th hearing with the International Trade Commission, where publishers will argue on behalf of their outlets. A final decision is anticipated by September.
“I think what’s happened in Alabama is probably happening in every state,” Jones said. “I mean I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t just shake their head about the loss of newspapers in this country.”