USPS to Struggling Publications: Take a Hike

Megan Tady

A famil­iar foe is once again threat­en­ing the future of many U.S. mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers – and it’s not the Inter­net. The U.S. Postal Service’s recent pro­pos­al to hike postal rates has print pub­li­ca­tions even more wor­ried about their future. 

Current policy effectively forces one drowning industry--the postal service--to try to buoy itself on another--print media.

The USPS is ask­ing the Postal Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion to approve emer­gency rate increas­es in order to help off­set a $7 bil­lion deficit this fis­cal year, which ends in Sep­tem­ber. But the rate increas­es, which would be the third price hike to hit peri­od­i­cals since 2007, may put dozens of already strug­gling inde­pen­dent and alter­na­tive print pub­li­ca­tions – like In These Times–in jeop­ardy. They would bal­loon pub­li­ca­tions’ postage costs at a time when rais­ing sub­scrip­tion prices and expand­ing ad rev­enue is basi­cal­ly out of the question. 

This is at a time when jour­nal­ism is in a cri­sis over­all because of the col­lapse of adver­tis­ing, because of the move to free con­tent on the Inter­net,” says Tere­sa Stack, pres­i­dent of The Nation mag­a­zine, an inde­pen­dent week­ly. I antic­i­pate that a lot of mag­a­zines are going to close their print­ed ver­sions, if not close their doors entire­ly, because there’s still no work­able mod­el on the Inter­net to pay the costs of journalism.”

To stop the pro­posed rate hike, hun­dreds of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers with small­er cir­cu­la­tions have joined larg­er print pub­li­ca­tions, non­prof­its and busi­ness­es to form an umbrel­la coali­tion called the Afford­able Mail Alliance. Jour­nal­ists and edi­tors who have spo­ken out on this issue include every­one from The Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tive to The Amer­i­can Prospect, and The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor to the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review. The coalition’s mes­sage is gain­ing trac­tion. Last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R‑Me.) released a state­ment say­ing the pro­posed hikes were not per­mis­si­ble under law. 

The irony, of course, is that the USPS itself is try­ing to stay afloat. The postal ser­vice – whose mis­sion is to pro­vide uni­ver­sal mail ser­vice and dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion – does not receive tax dol­lars for oper­at­ing funds, but instead relies on postage rev­enue, which in recent years has dras­ti­cal­ly decreased due to the Internet.

The USPS was reor­ga­nized under a 1970 law that required the qua­si-gov­ern­ment agency to break even over time.” Stack sug­gests that re-exam­in­ing this demand might ease the pres­sure on both the postal ser­vice and pub­li­ca­tions. I would argue that the law of 1970 needs to be revis­it­ed and that like almost every oth­er func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy, we need to sup­port postal deliv­ery with tax dol­lars,” she says. 

The postage debate has high­light­ed the unique con­nec­tion that the USPS has to the growth and devel­op­ment of the America’s free press. Indeed, the sto­ry of the found­ing fathers’ invest­ment in jour­nal­ism through their endorse­ment of expan­sive postal sub­si­dies tells us a lot about the role they envi­sioned for the press and the nature of the democ­ra­cy they sought to build. 

The found­ing fathers who set up the postal ser­vice over 200 years ago did so because they felt it was essen­tial to a func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy,” Stack said. So what you have now is a postal ser­vice that’s try­ing to run itself absolute­ly strict­ly as a busi­ness. And if…the effect of that is to make many of these news orga­ni­za­tions close their doors, that’s a his­tor­i­cal betray­al of [the USPS’] mission.”

In their recent report Pub­lic Pol­i­cy and Fund­ing the News,” David West­phal and Geof­fry Cow­an of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern California’s Annen­berg School point out the impact postal sub­si­dies – and their decline – have had on Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism. In 1970, the Postal Ser­vice sub­si­dized 75 per­cent of the cost of peri­od­i­cal mail­ings. Today, the sub­sidy has fall­en to just 11 per­cent,” West­phal and Cow­an write. (Cur­rent sub­si­dies” are postage dis­counts, rather than tax-pay­er dol­lars.) In today’s dol­lars, that’s a decline from near­ly $2 bil­lion in 1970 to $288 mil­lion today. Mag­a­zines that would still be prof­itable under the arrange­ment estab­lished by our founders are now clos­ing at a pre­cip­i­tous rate.”

While some may see this is sim­ply anoth­er nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion toward an online media land­scape, Stack notes that most inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism starts in print pub­li­ca­tions before it resur­faces on the Web. I think you’re def­i­nite­ly going to see a decrease in the amount of qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism that’s fact-checked and pro­fes­sion­al and avail­able to the gen­er­al pub­lic,” she said.

While we should cer­tain­ly not give knee-jerk sup­port to prop up the bro­ken print busi­ness mod­el, we must also rec­og­nize that print is still a pow­er­ful part of jour­nal­ism. If we, as a soci­ety, con­tin­ue to erode our sup­port for inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism, we effec­tive­ly put these small pub­li­ca­tions on the ropes finan­cial­ly. We take away their abil­i­ty to invest in new mod­els and strate­gies that can help them nav­i­gate the dig­i­tal transition.

As we ask the Postal Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion to sup­port jour­nal­ism by not increas­ing pub­li­ca­tions’ postage bur­den, we must simul­ta­ne­ous­ly look at new ways to bol­ster inde­pen­dent media and shield them from the whims of bad pub­lic pol­i­cy. That pol­i­cy effec­tive­ly forces one drown­ing indus­try – the postal ser­vice – to try to buoy itself on anoth­er – print media. It’s not a promis­ing long-term solu­tion for either. 

Megan Tady is a blog­ger and video pro­duc­er for Free Press, the nation­al non­prof­it media reform orga­ni­za­tion. She writes a month­ly InThe​se​Times​.com col­umn on media issues. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @MegTady.
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