BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Trump and Trudeau wrangle over big issues like steel and agriculture, a new crisis emerges that seems both terrible and quaint. Many American newspapers, after years of steep decline, are facing yet another peril because in March the Commerce Department slammed big tariffs on Canadian uncoated groundwood paper -- that’s newsprint to you. Consider the Tampa Bay Times where in April 50 more jobs were cut due to a potential $3 million annual rise in the price of paper. Reporter Erin Arvedlund has been covering this for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Erin, welcome to On the Media.
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where did the US government get the idea that American newsprint producers deserved federal protection from their Canadian counterparts?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: It was actually one paper mill in Longview, Washington that is owned by a private equity firm in New York City. They bought this mill, which is called North Pacific Paper, and somehow were able to wangle a tariff out of the Department of Commerce.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But since then lots of American paper producers have signed on to their request?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: No, no one else --
-- in the industry [LAUGHS] wants this. In fact, they oppose it because they know that a tariff on newsprint would really hurt customers like you and me who subscribe to print newspapers, as well as readers of hardcover and paperback books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was looking at a letter that something called the News Media Alliance wrote to the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and they said, “Local newspapers are the core of our community’s access to local news about governmental activity, local economic and business issues high school sports and milestones for local citizens. Our thousands of employees and millions of readers are counting on you to protect the industry from North Pacific Paper company's brazen attempt to manipulate the trade laws in a manner that would inflict widespread harm on the newspaper industry without the support of others in the domestic paper industry.” And it's signed by hundreds of small newspapers from everywhere, the Ashland Daily Tidings, the Burlington Free Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, Hutchinson News, Laredo Morning Times, and so on. Is there a chance that this could affect thousands upon thousands of jobs?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Oh, definitely. You know, we here at the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News will see costs rise $2 million in one year, if this tariff continues. In our business there are two costs, people and paper. This tariff, jeopardizing thousands of jobs, that's the ripple effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how many people are employed by this paper mill in Washington State?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Two-hundred and fifty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, newspapers have taken such a big hit in recent years. What difference, in 2018, can the cost of paper possibly make?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Well, even though this one paper mill says, oh, it will only cost a few more pennies per day, the owner of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that pennies on a large number of units every day, that adds up to $8 million annually.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the Wall Street Journal.
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Correct. The Ozona Stockman, which is a small family-owned paper in Texas, they actually heard from their supplier that there will be no more paper available after July.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow!
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Owners are now [LAUGHS] not certain they’ll be even in business by the end of 2018. So the argument that it's pennies is really a specious one. What they're not calculating is the inescapable fact that this will slow down to the consumer. It’s people who read papers. It’s readers of hardcover and paperback books, real estate agents, you know, who hand out flyers. It’s teachers who buy paper for their classrooms.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anything that uses grainy paper [LAUGHING] is going to be in trouble is what you’re saying.
When I was in elementary school, we each got each got big pencils and paper that was so bad there were like chunks of wood still in it.
It’s just astonishing that one mill that employs 250 people can influence the already-ailing local news industry. Even now, there are hardly any eyes on local statehouses, and corruption happens in plain sight.
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Now, in August the Department of Commerce will rule on this, whether to basically hit the pause button on this tariff until we see what the effect is going to be on American workers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is some bipartisan opposition to this tariff.
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Here in Pennsylvania, we have Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and both of them have signed onto versions of legislation that would put a pause on this. Meanwhile, they've been joined by Republicans, Susan Collins in Maine, independents like Angus King because, let’s face it, there’s a news operation in pretty much every state and they're all getting hit by this. Right now, 17 senators have cosponsored the legislation, so there is momentum building. There is bipartisan support to stop the tariff, which is a miracle. On the other hand, we don't know much about the influence of One Rock Capital, which is the private equity owner of this mill in Washington State.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you working on that story?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: I am and I could use your help. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What can I do for you?
ERIN ARVEDLUND: I could use the public's help in finding out more about the owners of One Rock Capital. Tony Lee and Scott Spielvogel, two of the managing partners there, are very wealthy men. They may have contributed money to someone in the Trump administration or in Congress, so that’s really what we need to find out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think any of this has to do with the fact that --
ERIN ARVEDLUND: [LAUGHS] I know what you’re gonna say. [LAUGHS] Is this because President Trump and his administration doesn’t like the news business? [LAUGHS] And the answer is I don’t know.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. Erin, thank you very much.
ERIN ARVEDLUND: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Erin Arvedlund is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, what do you call campus protests against Israel? According to a bill moving its way through Congress, you call it “anti-Semitism.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.