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.