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.
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.