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Valuable lessons learned

Sam_webThe first time I heard about newsprint tariffs was in early December of last year when Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Josh Sharp and I were in Washington for a meeting of Newspaper Association Managers. We came back to Illinois thinking, “How can we influence or weigh in on a federal issue that would have a devastating effect on our member newspapers?”

Granted, we’re no stranger to the legislative dealings in Springfield and are effective at marshaling our members to the cause; but Washington, that’s a whole new ballgame.
We spent most of the month of December trying to understand trade laws and how the tariff process would play out. It’s a complicated issue that involved two separate entities – the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission.

It was Commerce’s responsibility to determine if tariffs were warranted and to establish tariff rates. Then it was the ITC’s singular task to determine if harm was done to U.S. newsprint producers. Both government entities had to agree on tariffs for them to become permanent.

In January, Commerce imposed countervailing duties, acknowledging that the government does subsidize the production of Canadian newsprint. Then in March, Commerce imposed anti-dumping duties, citing that Canadian newsprint is sold below its fair value.

In March, IPF Board of Directors President Jerry Reppert (The Gazette-Democrat, Anna), John Galer (The Journal-News, Hillsboro), Scott Stone (Daily Herald, Arlington Heights), Sue Walker (Hyde Park Herald, Chicago), Josh and I headed to the Hill to explain our position to legislators and their staffs. We were met with tremendous support.
In early April, I was able to meet with the editorial board at Sauk Valley Media along with Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., to enlist her support. Bustos, a longtime reporter with the Quad-City Times, agreed to lead the effort to get all members of the House to sign a joint letter to the ITC opposing tariffs. It was ideal, as her legislative director has considerable experience in trade issues, specifically with the ITC process.

Admittedly, this was a tall order to get all 18 members from both sides of the aisle of the House to sign. Many of our members met, called and emailed their House members urging them to sign.

In June a joint letter signed by all 18 members of the Illinois delegation was sent to the International Trade Commission.

Prior to the joint letter, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross opposing the tariffs. Thanks to Sue, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., authored her own letter to the ITC in opposition of tariffs. Additionally, Sue, with the help of Dan Haley (Wednesday Journal, Oak Park), was able to get Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., to personally testify before the ITC in July.

During the course of this battle, our newspapers responded with literally hundreds of editorials about the harmful impact of tariffs.

Simultaneously, legislation was introduced both in the Senate and House that would have called for a suspension of tariffs until Commerce could study the impact, not only on newsprint producers, but newspapers as well. Typically trade laws don’t look at the downstream impact of tariffs, only the impact on producers.

I have to admit that I was not overly optimistic the ITC would rule in our favor, and was ecstatic when I received an email that simply said – “we won.” All five ITC commissioners voted in our favor citing that there was no harm done to U.S. newsprint producers.

What happens next is a little unclear, but we know that tariffs will still be collected until the ITC sends its final report to the Department of Commerce on Sept. 24. At that time, Commerce will instruct Customs to cease the collection of duties. How long it will take for Customs to refund the collected duties to the mills is unclear, and equally unclear is what that means for us.

It’s uncertain if there will be any rebates, but it’s best to take up that topic with your newsprint supplier or printer. This could present some confusion in the short term, but realistically, it’s a nice problem to have.

This has been an exhaustive process that has proven invaluable as there were many lessons learned:

Our brand is still valuable, as witnessed by the support of every member of our Congressional delegation. They understand the vital role newspapers play in the communities we serve.

We’ve learned how to connect with our federally elected officials. We need to make sure we maintain those relationships, much like we encourage our newspapers to do with their locally elected officials.

Be thankful – give credit to those members of our Illinois Congressional delegation. They need to know that we appreciate their support. There were 150 members of Congress that officially opposed the tariffs, 20 of them from Illinois. Illinois led the way with the support of our entire Congressional delegation – Colorado was another state that had the complete support of its much smaller delegation.

We won’t know the ITC’s reasoning behind the ruling until the final report is released later this month, but I have to believe the support from Congress played a huge role.

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