The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quietly, one of President Trump’s tariffs threatens American democracy

Rising newspaper costs could leave communities with no local information sources.

Jason Campbell adjusts rolls of newsprint before printing at the Columbian newspaper on April 18, 2018 in Vancouver, Wash. (Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

In January, the Trump administration applied one of its least discussed, but most consequential, tariffs: the one covering the Canadian newsprint long used by American newspapers.

Trump’s tariffs increased costs by at least 20 percent, with potentially dire ramifications in the already suffering newspaper business. “I think there’s probably going to be some casualties,” said Skip Bliss, publisher of the Gazette, the local newspaper in Janesville, Wis., the hometown of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. International Trade Committee reversed the newsprint tariffs, because they harmed American newspapers. But the long-term consequences may be hard to undo. That’s because what kills newspapers most often is not losing subscribers, but long-term economic forces like rising costs of newsprint and lost advertising revenue. And once costs have risen, they may not drop back down.

Trump’s tariffs could be the death blow for many local news outlets. Major newspapers can weather the storm of rising costs but smaller newspapers may not. These outlets are particularly important because they act as watchdogs, hold public officials accountable and build community. As they die out, they leave behind an environment where it is far easier to shield corruption and misdeeds from detection.

The price of newsprint has always been a major issue for newspapers. Before the 19th century, paper was mostly made from rags. The paper was very durable, but expensive. The mid-19th century development of cheap paper from groundwood pulp fueled the rise of mass-circulation newspapers. It was now possible to print hundreds of thousands of copies cheaply.

During World War I, however, procuring paper became problematic not only in the United States but in Britain and Germany. The British mass-market paper News of the World reduced from 16 pages in 1914 to four by 1918. The war blocked Germany from importing raw materials for paper like wood. Cellulose and sulfite — two essential materials for paper — were used for sanitation at the front rather than making paper. Paper quality also suffered because the army needed the chlorine, iron disulfide and resin that were normally used to bleach the pulp.

Scarcity and inflation jolted prices upward across the world. Newsprint costs remained so high after the war that a Senate hearing addressed the problem in 1920. The president of the American Press Association, Courtland Smith, testified that inflation in paper prices was “a question of life or death,” particularly for smaller newspapers.

German publishers were similarly alarmed. In 1919, the new democratic Weimar government stopped price controls and subsidies for paper. Paper producers immediately increased costs for newspapers. The provision of paper became “an existential question,” wrote one trade journal in 1920.

By May 1920, newsprint cost publishers 20 times what it had in 1914. Newspapers would have to raise prices for consumers, cut their size or go bankrupt. Many German publishers slashed the number of newspaper pages in half.

In the United States, prices soon stabilized. In Germany, however, inflation tipped into hyperinflation in 1922-23, compounding newspapers’ problems. Advertising revenue declined substantially. Three hundred newspapers shut down due to the combination of increased paper prices and inflation.

Government interventions proved ineffective. In July 1922, the German parliament promulgated a law that fixed prices for newsprint, but it was never effectively enforced.

These developments created an opening for those who wanted to use the press to advance an agenda. Two industrialists turned media magnates, Alfred Hugenberg and Hugo Stinnes, went on newspaper buying sprees, creating larger media conglomerates than Germany had ever seen. Stinnes died in 1924; Hugenberg continued to consolidate control over vast swathes of German media. Hugenberg also tied his media empire to politics: he became the head of a conservative party, the DNVP (German National People’s Party), from 1928 to 1933.

Hugenberg created a vertically integrated media empire that included everything from paper companies to newspaper publishers to syndicate services to advertising agencies to a major film company. At the same time, he created companies to provide financial aid to failing newspapers. These companies only helped right-wing newspapers.

Hugenberg’s reach extended beyond the news outlets he owned or partially owned. Although roughly 80 percent of newspapers were still independently owned, more and more provincial newspapers produced less and less of their own coverage. Instead they relied upon syndicated services and news agencies — like those owned by Hugenberg. By 1926, some 1200 of the 3200 newspapers in Germany relied upon syndicated services. One left-wing journalist, Walter Aub, declared that Hugenberg’s media control had crowned him “Germany’s secret king.”

Newspapers’ financial troubles never really dissipated in the Weimar Republic. In 1927, publishers’ costs were four to five times higher than in 1913. On top of that, advertising revenue effectively halved from 1928 to 1931. Paper prices never returned to pre-World War I levels.

By the late 1920s, a flourishing newspaper landscape in cities disguised a weakened newspaper landscape elsewhere. In many small towns and villages, Hugenberg’s papers and syndicated services presented a picture of a scandal-ridden democracy that could only be fixed by strong, conservative leaders.

Newspapers could not dictate how people voted. The share of votes for Hugenberg’s party halved from 14.3 percent in May 1928 to 7 percent in September 1930.

But Hugenberg’s services helped to shift the German population to the right, unintentionally enabling the more dynamic Nazi Party to capitalize on popular discontent. The Nazi share of the vote rose swiftly from 2.6 percent in 1928 to a peak of 37.3 percent in the July 1932 election.

After the successful struggle to save democracy during World War II, some members of Congress recognized the importance of newsprint and newspapers to that mission. Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) argued in 1950 that newsprint was “the indispensable commodity for carrying the message of the democratic way of life.” He suggested sending newsprint abroad to fight the Soviet influence.

Today, however, thanks to the president’s tariffs, we’re seeing forces at work in American media similar to those that plagued Weimar Germany. The New York Times and The Washington Post may have seen bumps in ad sales that cancel out any lasting effects from newsprint tariffs. But smaller town and rural community papers aren’t so lucky.

Blackshear, a town in southern Georgia, is now what its newspaper publisher calls a “news desert.” There is no local television news operation, and the closest large city providing news is Jacksonville in the neighboring state of Florida. The Blackshear Times, the local newspaper, has a weekly print circulation of around 3,700; only about a dozen people read the newspaper’s website every week. The increase in printing costs of 20 to 25 percent could cripple the paper, leaving the community with no source for local news.

Even in communities where papers remain afloat, many have or will have to cut reporters to balance costs. Instead of robust local coverage, readers will receive more stories syndicated from the Associated Press. “The readers suffer when you cut a reporter position. It’s probably the easiest place to cut because you just run an AP story,” Crystal Dupre, publisher of The Bryan-College Station Eagle in Texas, told the New York Times. “But it affects your local content. We won’t survive if we don’t have local content.”

As many of us read newspapers online, we forget that they are still industrial products. One of their biggest expenses was, and remains, paper. Even in a purportedly digital age, material concerns fundamentally shape news. We forget that lesson at our peril.