Postal Rates = Free Press

Rate hike pushed by media conglomerate Time Warner threaten small and medium-circulation publications

Robert McChesney

In 1792, the Unit­ed States Con­gress con­vert­ed the free press clause in the First Amend­ment from an abstract prin­ci­ple into a liv­ing real­i­ty for Amer­i­cans by pro­vid­ing news­pa­pers with low postal rates. These low rates were cru­cial for the growth and spread of the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, the pop­ulist move­ment and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. More broad­ly, they have been cen­tral to devel­op­ment of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy in general.

Today, mag­a­zines like In These Times face an imme­di­ate threat to their finan­cial health, and per­haps sur­vival, due to a mas­sive postal rate increase that will go into effect on July 15.

To the sur­prise of many inde­pen­dent pub­lish­ers, in Feb­ru­ary the Postal Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (PRC), the body in charge of deter­min­ing postal rates, reject­ed a rate-hike plan that was sub­mit­ted by the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, the peo­ple in the busi­ness of deliv­er­ing the mail for the past 215 years. This plan was wide­ly under­stood to call for an approx­i­mate 12 per­cent increase that would have hit all pub­li­ca­tions more or less equally.

Instead the PRC adopt­ed a revised ver­sion of an extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed pro­pos­al sub­mit­ted by media con­glom­er­ate Time Warn­er that includ­ed a num­ber of pos­si­ble dis­counts favor­ing the largest pub­lish­ers. Time Warn­er is the largest mag­a­zine pub­lish­er in the nation. To make up for the dis­counts and main­tain their rev­enue tar­gets, some mag­a­zines will have to pay a lot more than the 12 per­cent increase most had bud­get­ed for. Research by McGraw-Hill, a mag­a­zine and book pub­lish­er, sug­gests many pub­li­ca­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly small and medi­um-cir­cu­la­tion pub­li­ca­tions, could now be look­ing at imme­di­ate postal rate hikes well above 20 or 25 per­cent – thou­sands to hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in addi­tion­al costs that will strain already tight budgets.

The PRC’s Time Warn­er plan was approved by the Postal Board of Gov­er­nors in March. Only then did many small pub­lish­ers, media and pub­lic inter­est activists, and even mem­bers of Con­gress learn of this rad­i­cal rate change.

Because the Postal Ser­vice is a monop­oly, and because mag­a­zines must use it as their main dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work, the postal rates have always been skewed to make it cheap­er for small­er pub­li­ca­tions to launch and to survive. 

The genius of the postal rate struc­ture over the past 215 years was that it did not favor a par­tic­u­lar view­point; it sim­ply made it eas­i­er for small­er mag­a­zines. That is why the pub­li­ca­tions oppos­ing the new postal rate hikes cross the polit­i­cal spec­trum, and include the Nation­al Review, Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, The Nation, Moth­er Jones and In These Times. This is a democ­ra­cy issue. It is about fos­ter­ing com­pet­i­tive media mar­kets that ben­e­fit all Americans.

Iron­i­cal­ly, America’s first, and arguably most bril­liant, media pol­i­cy is also cru­cial for keep­ing the Inter­net open and vibrant. Much of the pub­lic affairs mate­r­i­al that peo­ple read on the web is gen­er­at­ed by these print pub­li­ca­tions. If the print pub­li­ca­tions do not exist, these sto­ries do not get writ­ten or post­ed online.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that a num­ber of small pub­li­ca­tions and Free Press, a non­par­ti­san media reform orga­ni­za­tion, have orga­nized a cam­paign to draw pub­lic atten­tion to this cri­sis. Their web­site, www​.stop​postal​rate​hikes​.com, pro­vides links to all the rel­e­vant data and news arti­cles and has gen­er­at­ed 60,000 let­ters of protest. Rep. Dan­ny Davis (D‑Ill.), chair of the House sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees postal rates, has agreed to hold a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing before the poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous Time Warn­er plan goes into effect.

It is imper­a­tive that the truth emerges about this plan. The exact amount of its rate hikes for peri­od­i­cals – still unclear, even to the Postal Ser­vice – and the impli­ca­tions for a free press must be under­stood before we take a reck­less dive off a cliff on July 15. Please go to www​.stop​postal​rate​hikes​.com, read the back­ground mate­r­i­al and con­sid­er sign­ing the letter.

Robert W. McCh­es­ney is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign and co-edi­tor of Month­ly Review. He is the author, most recent­ly, of Rich Media, Poor Democ­ra­cy: Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Pol­i­tics in Dubi­ous Times.
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