ELLSWORTH — Less than a year after they were first imposed, tariffs on Canadian newsprint instituted by the U.S. Commerce Department have been abolished.
In a unanimous vote on Wednesday, the five-member United States International Trade Commission overturned the tariffs, saying the imports of Canadian newsprint do not threaten or harm U.S. producers.
In a statement, commissioners wrote that “a U.S. industry is not materially injured or threatened with material injury by reason of imports of uncoated groundwood paper from Canada.”
The switch was “a very pleasant surprise,” said Alan Baker, the newly retired owner and publisher of The Ellsworth American, who said he did not yet know the details of price changes.
The tariffs, which were imposed by the Commerce Department in January, were originally capped at 32 percent, but were lowered in mid-August to between 1 and 20 percent, depending on the producer.
“We had been kind of toughing it out,” Baker said, “and I think that was a good strategy.”
Newsprint is the paper’s third-largest expense, behind salaries and circulation costs, and the cost of it skyrocketed around 26.5 percent for The American after the tariffs were imposed, Baker said.
The company did not raise the price of a subscription but had been forced to pass some of the cost along to smaller papers printed on The American’s presses, such as The Bucksport Enterprise and Penobscot Bay Press newspapers.
“Now we’ll be able to pass along some reductions,” Baker said.
Andrew Chavern, president and CEO of the New Media Alliance, said in a statement that he welcomed the decision, but said much of the damage caused by the tariffs “has already been done.”
“The tariffs have disrupted the newsprint market,” said Chavern, “increasing newsprint costs by nearly 30 percent and forcing many newspapers to reduce their print distribution and cut staff.”
The Tampa Bay Times cut 50 jobs after the announcement in January, citing tariffs. A paper in North Carolina cut the Sunday comics, while another went from 20 pages to 16 pages, citing the cost of newsprint as the primary reason.
The department’s decision to impose the tariffs was triggered by a petition filed last August by a single paper mill in southwestern Washington. The mill, North Pacific Paper Co., claimed that government-subsidized Canadian newsprint producers were dumping paper below production costs in the United States.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) as well as U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) had all criticized the Commerce Department’s decision. In May, Collins and King co-sponsored legislation that would have suspended the tariffs and required the secretary of commerce to study the economic vitality of the newsprint and newspaper publishing industries.
On Thursday, Baker lamented the loss of local newsprint manufacturers over the past decades. The American once purchased all of its newsprint from Great Northern Paper Co. in Millinocket, he said, adding that representatives would come down to discuss how the paper types were working on the company’s presses.
“We were kind of the testing ground,” Baker said.
As the mills shut their doors, leaving no newsprint manufacturers in the Northeast corner of the country, The American began buying paper through a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit cooperative that represents several hundred newspapers.