Center for Citizen Media Rotating Header Image

Is Postal Rate Hike for Magazines Fair?

Free Press, a think tank and lobbying group, posts: “Stamp Out the Rate Hike: What’s at Stake.” This is a fervent call for the public to do what it can to change the terms of a postal rate hike for magazines.

Postage price increases are nothing new, of course. But the latest hike — somewhat unfairly dubbed by Free Press a “Time Warner plan,” when in fact it’s a modified version of what the media giant suggested — gives a big break to companies that have highly automated and mass distribution systems, and forces less efficient publishers to pay relatively much higher fees. Free Press writes:

The Time Warner plan represents another step (albeit a giant step) in the gradual reversal of the Founders’ public service principles of supporting democracy through the postal service. It is the latest, largest move towards abandoning these public service priorities and permitting a system that no longer favors low-advertising, political speech — like In These Times and The American Spectator — over ad-heavy magazines like People and Cosmo. The practical result of this move is not only the decline of a democratic mission, but a rate shock for small and medium size magazines even as big publishers are getting a break.

This may be true to a point. But it’s also true that the efficiencies promised by the mega-publisher will actually make it cheaper for the postal service to deliver those magazines.

Yet if efficiency and cost of delivery were the real issues in postal services, people sending letters to Alaska’s most rural areas — not to mention Montana and western Colorado, among many other places — would pay significantly more than they’d spend to send a letter across town to pay a local bill. Yet the cost of a first-class stamp, while it has risen across the board, doesn’t vary by location or distance.

Why should the Postal Service be exempt from rational economics when it comes to first-class mail? Because, we’ve decided as a nation, the costs of some kinds of communications should be shared on a national basis, especially when one entity had a monopoly over service.

Our federal mail system led to the rise of newspapers, among other publications, which were in the early days universally delivered by mail. As I noted in “We the Media,” Bruce Bimber called the completion of a superb national post system a “Manhattan project for communications,” an apt comparison given the resources it took to do this. There is no question that the Post Office was a primary and essential contributor to public discourse.

But conditions have changed in all kinds of ways. The package-delivery services (including the Postal Service) charge different amounts to send things to different regions. And in the age of the Internet, when launching a new publication takes almost no money at all, when distance is irrelevant to the producer and consumer alike, why are we so insistent on holding onto an old pricing system?

If fairness and efficiency are the real tests, Congress should bite the bullet and let postal rates reflect actual costs for all kinds of deliveries. And it should end the Postal Service’s monopoly grip over first-class mail.

Until it does, the magazine price hike looks a bit hypocritical.

6 Comments on “Is Postal Rate Hike for Magazines Fair?”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 16th, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    “And in the age of the Internet, when launching a new publication takes almost no money at all, when distance is irrelevant to the producer and consumer alike, …”

    Then why does it matter what rate the Postal Service charges?

  2. #2 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 16th, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Good point, Seth. I’d say that one of the challenges that Free Press has is convincing legions of keyboard activists that a pay press is still a good thing. As their manifesto says: “There is still no clear business model to support quality journalism online, and these print publications provide the resources to pay for the journalists and writers whose material is available in cyberspace.”

    Not surprisingly, most of the independent ‘zines don’t give any more detail than saying that the new plan is “complex.” I had to find the bourgeois Business Week to report to get the numbers:

    “Postal officials point out that the cost of mailing periodicals has increased faster than for other classes of mail, and federal law requires each class of mail to break even. The new rate structure increases discounts for more efficient mailers who can bundle magazines going to the same Zip Code, ship them directly to a postal distribution center, and make them sortable by machine.”

    That’s both sides of the story, for those of you scoring at home.

  3. #3 Tom Stites
    on Aug 18th, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    As the recently retired publisher of UU World, a 125,000-circulation print magazine that also produces a sibling weekly web magazine, let me testify that the postal rate increase is a killer.

    By focusing on efficiency, Dan misses another crucial variable: scale. The plan the USPS imposed may indeed be modified from what Time-Warner submitted, but it nonetheless radically changes the way periodical postage is figured in a way that actually lowers postage costs for magazines with millions of circulation — the kind that Time-Warner tends to publish — and increases the postage of smaller-circulation magazines by 20 to 25 percent. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve worked the numbers. A magazine publisher’s two biggest costs are paper and postage, so an increase of this size is certain to be enough to kill some small, interesting magazines that aren’t designed to make pubishers rich on tons of ads.

    Here’s the rub: Magazines with millions of circulation print so many copies, often in regional plants, that they can truck skid-loads of copies to local postal facilities all over the country, thus qualifying for new low rates the Time-Warner plan establishes.

    Magazines with 125,000, or 250,000 or even 500,000 circulation can’t do that. So the commercial printers that specialize in such magazines are using comailing machinery to combine the mailing of many small titles, thus allowing a greater proportion of their copies to be trucked on skids. But the result doesn’t come close to earning the rates the giants get under the new plan.

    The magazines hardest hit are weekly opinion magazines; they carry modest advertising, get little help from comailing because it undercuts timeliness — and they have to pay postage 52 times a year. The publishers of The Nation and The National Review worked overcame their political opposition and worked together to assemble a coalition of smaller publishers to write a joint letter of protest to the USPS, to which I eagerly added my signature.

    If our nation values varied discourse, and is serious about free speech, this rate structure needs to be rebalanced.

    I know, I know, some will read this and think I’m some kind of troglodyte because I’m trying to protect print, that it’s clear that the future of discourse is on the Web. Of course it is. But a huge amount of the material that aggregators aggregate, and that so many of us comment on, originates in print. That will change with time, but should the USPS be the arbiter of the pace of that change?

    And, in a nation that’s supposed to be a democracy, should huge corporations have such power to shape political discourse?

  4. #4 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 19th, 2007 at 11:23 am


    I remembered hearing you speak at MGP 2006 at UMass-Amherst.

    Thanks for your detailed explaination. I had been looking for something like that online. I just always hate to join a movement simply because someone says “Time Warner is evil.” Now that I search “comailing,” I get some deeper understanding; this is from the MPA below:

    I have given suggestions as to how to restore a “culture of subscriptions” to online publications via the Online News Association list. But no one responds. 🙁


  5. #5 Tom Stites
    on Aug 19th, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    Here’s the text of one of the protest letters I joined in signing, which lays out the position of small and medium magazines:

    Most of the threatened magazines are published by single-title publishers or other small companies and not-for-profits that simply don’t have the muscle to play on game boards that benefit the Time-Warners of the world. One of the little-understood problems our country faces is the proliferating number of inherently unfair fights between behemoth corporations and small businesses, small governments, and individuals. This exemplifies the problem.

  6. #6 Tom Stites
    on Aug 19th, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    Jon, can you offer a URL that would allow me, and others following this, to read your suggetions on how to restore a “culture of subscriptions” to online publications? Sounds fascinating.