This week we witnessed the bloodletting at Superman’s very own paper, the Daily News, where 50 percent of the editorial staff was slashed. By now we are immune to the number of things Trump gets blamed for, so it’s no surprise that since the Trump Administration’s Commerce Department announced retaliatory tariffs on Canadian groundwood paper in January, the dying newspaper business is naming Trump as the prime suspect in the mystery crime of who killed newspaper print.
In April, The Tampa Bay Times said Trump’s tariffs were responsible for its demise. And according to the Blaze, “A spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay Times told the Tampa Bay Business Journal that the layoffs were a direct effect caused by the tariffs.” Columbia Journalism Review also pointed to Trump’s tariffs hastening the demise of local papers, specifically naming the Daily News as one of his latest victims.
But is all of this the fault of Trump’s tariffs or just a reminder of the slow and painful death of newsprint media? It’s sometimes hard for those outside the print industry to truly understand the complete gutting of a once thriving industry or, in today’s media climate, to have any sympathy for its casualties. Journalists in mainstream media today are pretty much akin to communists in our world. I get it, but the slow demise of the newsprint industry hasn’t just affected latte-sipping New York journalists.
In the quiet and rural community of Catawba, South Carolina, sits AbitibiBowater, now Resolute Forest Products, but to the locals “Bowater”—a mammoth, sprawling, smelly Montreal, Quebec-owned wood pulp factory that is supplied by the seemingly endless loggers from the surrounding rural counties. The paper mill is fed by the same pine-tree laden logging trucks featured in the classic movie, ‘My Cousin Vinny,” ponderously snaking their way over the river end-to-end like army ants, snarling traffic and causing accidents.
I was once friends with a local logger who went by the name Turtle. A self-employed son of a logger, Turtle had at least one to two helpers he could call on for particularly large jobs, and was mercilessly and wholly dependent on the daily price he could fetch for a truck load of dead trees. Turtle was always quick with a joke and could always be found with a beer in one hand after a long sweaty day in the woods entertaining the rest of us with his exploits on “killing trees.” But Turtle was no fool, he understood how prices were set and when it was worth his while to work.
In a community with few jobs and fewer opportunities, Turtle made a good living, hiring locals when needed, supporting a wife and several children, owning his own home and maintaining the upkeep on the equipment that made his business hum, including the ubiquitous 18-wheel logging truck that proudly bore the name of the family business.
And that smelly, burping, busy as a beehive wood pulp plant didn’t just keep loggers like Turtle in business, it employed my long-time boyfriend for many years. An industrial pipefitter, Bill liked to remind us white collar types that, “No, he isn’t a plumber.” He too, was eventually let go after acres of paper piled up in those Bowater warehouses.
Far away and in the hub of one of the nation’s most prosperous areas of Northern Virginia, my brother, a third-generation printer by trade, continued to see his hours and salary reduced after 40 years in the business. Jerry ran some of the most sophisticated German-made printing presses along the eastern seaboard at the height of his career. Money was always tight, yet my brother managed to own a home and supported a stay-at-home wife and four children. It was a good living for hard work. Today, his son, remains in the trade, but his specialty is digital and graphics printing and he delivers pizza on his off hours to supplement his wages.
I, too, got caught in the trap of the cut-throat publishing industry that ensued in the 1990s when small book publishers, such as the one I was employed at, were gobbled up by larger publishing houses then ceremoniously killed. It was the easiest way to eliminate the competition and build publishing conglomerates. The corporate bean counters where happy to send the editorial staff off with a severance package and a pink slip, then write the acquisition off as a tax loss. Power is control, after all.
Though Trump is right to attack unfair trade barriers, such as the Canadian government subsidizing the wood pulp industry it’s complicated, as they say. The Commerce Department’s original tariff in January was set at 6.5 percent, but in March an additional tariff of 22 percent kicked in. In 2016, U.S. paper imports from Canada were a lucrative $1.27 billion. However, that amount is actually down 26 percent from two years prior, meaning imports were dropping considerably before the tariffs were enacted.
But this messy fact hasn’t kept industry groups or Congress from pushing back against the Commerce Department’s tariffs, many of whom are being pressured by those who have an interest in keeping newsprint on life support. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) introduced the Protecting Rational Incentives in Newsprint Trade Act, or the PRINT Act (H.R. 6031 and S. 2835) , a bill aimed not at killing Trump’s tariffs on Canadian newsprint, but putting the tariffs on hold, which effectively is the same as killing them.
According to Noem, “The tariffs would only exacerbate that issue [the demise of newsprint]. A paper that services around 20,000 customers, for instance, could see paper costs rise by about a quarter-million dollars annually, threatening the newspaper’s survival.”
But is she right? What about the acres of paper stranded in warehouses at the Catawba, South Carolina ‘s Montreal-owned paper mill? The answer is unequivocally, No. For reasons I’ve already discussed, the print industry has been in a death spiral for decades. The question isn’t the need for a tariff, but why we have allowed Canadian companies to own and operate American wood pulp industries that have driven up the price of paper and squeezed print media without so much as a whimper.
In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Steve Forbes said, “Supporters [of the tariffs] also note that the tariffs may have been enacted primarily to affect one large company that contributes millions of dollars politically: the North Pacific Paper Company [NORPAC]. The trade group that represents paper mills, the American Forest and Paper Association, opposes the tariffs, as do scores of newspapers, book publishers and printers around the country.”
But not so fast. The CEOs of NORPAC all hail from Weyerhauser, the world’s largest private owner of softwood timber and the world’s largest producer of softwood lumber and market pulp. Weyerhauser holds licenses for 27 million acres of timber in Canada. It’s an incestuous family. Today, NORAC is owned by One Rock Capital Partners, LLC, a private equity firm specializing in investments in buyouts. In this case, they sparked controversy when they bought one of NORPAC’s paper mills in Longview, Washington and then petitioned the Trump Commerce Department for tariffs against Canadian paper.
Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the News Media Alliance, speaking in opposition to the tariffs said, “The Trump administration imposed levies on newsprint from Canada, which produces about 60 percent of all newsprint. Most Canadian imports of paper go to the midwest and northeastern regions of the U.S. The one mill and the private equity firm are not supported in their efforts by any other U.S. paper mills or the American Forest and Paper Association.”
But Boyle makes Trump’s point without realizing it. Why are we importing 60 percent of our newsprint? Isn’t this the premise behind Trump’s Make America Great Again. Organizations such as the American Forest and Paper Association are heavily invested in the trade practices that have flourished after the passage of NAFTA. Powerful industry talking heads, such as Media Alliance, whose members represent more than 1,350 U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, are going to cry foul of any major trade changes.
Unfair practices in the paper industry have been going on long before the proposed Trump tariffs and are just one factor in the shuttering of U.S. newspapers, which largely have died due to its failure to respond to digital media and adapt and the insidious buy-up practices of big media corporations that want to snuff out dissenting voices of lone, small community papers that don’t fit the media talking points. Power, after all, is control.
Canadian wood pulp industries only became behemoths when the American tariff on newsprint ended on the eve of the First World War. Following the ending of this American tariff, the Canadian economy boomed, benefiting not U.S. timber companies but Canadian timber industries.
Those opposing the tariffs on Canadian paper may be right, the tariffs may be the final nail in the coffin of the newsprint industry, but let’s be clear, it isn’t the cause. The pulp and chemical industries are billion dollar businesses that make more than just paper. Technologies using composite materials from wood pulp and chemical companies is big business, and it’s time to bring it home.
Companies such as One Rock Capital Partners are the scavengers in business suits who make money by buying and restructuring distressed timber and chemical companies then repackaging and restructuring them for corporate gain. It’s the same shell game used in countless other industries. It isn’t the solution to troubled businesses, it’s just the clean up team that squeezes the last few ounces of profit from a dripping tap.
The saying, “No pain, no gain” couldn’t be truer for the wood pulp and paper industries. Trump’s tariffs are meant to be painful when Canadian players and Wall Street wonder boys refuse to belly up to the NAFTA bar for renegotiation talks. Trump’s paper tariffs may have more to do with arm wrestling NAFTA players to the table than they do with the future of newsprint. And if Trump can succeed in negotiating trade pacts that don’t suit U.S. interests, as he so successfully did with the EU, then limp noodle Trudeau should be a yuge slice of chocolate cake. Reign well.