Posting Ideas

Posting Ideas

To keep the press free, Ben Franklin made sure that periodicals once got preferential treatment from the USPS. It's time to revisit that idea again.


Ben Franklin, who has been called the first citizen of print, established lower rates for newspapers when he was postmaster general (and arranged for magazines to be shipped free of charge by post road). Franklin, who founded one of America's first real magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, was simultaneously postmaster, printer and magazine maven, so he may be said to have had a conflict of interest. But George Washington also believed in the free distribution of newspapers (in many ways the equivalent of today's journals of opinion). Indeed, most of the Founding Fathers thought the circulation of ideas, information, opinion, expertise and argument in periodical form would help the new nation discover its identity.

It was not until Richard Nixon's Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 that Congress required each class of mail to cover its own cost. Until that time, the post office treated periodicals (second-class mail) as a public good. Like water, education and the national defense, they were not expected to pay their own way.

Because the US Postal Service still retains the discretion to propose the allocation of costs within each class, every time a new postal increase is recommended a bruising behind-the-scenes battle ensues, as numerous interested groups make their case before an obscure agency called the Postal Rate Commission, which receives tons of paper and eons of testimony and after many months makes recommendations to the Board of Governors (presidential appointees all) of the USPS.

Traditionally, small-circulation magazines, especially journals of opinion, literary magazines, scholarly journals and such, have been underrepresented in these bureaucratic skirmishes. This is partly because they can't afford the high-priced lobbyists and lawyers required for effective representation, but also because the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA), which one would expect to represent all citizens in the republic of magazines, is dominated by the major players and over the years has protected their interests, often to the detriment of their small- and tiny-circulation brethren. Since these smaller periodicals are for the most part financially marginal and money-losing operations, the amount of a postal-rate increase can often make the difference between survival and disappearance.

In recent times, postal rates have been increased on average every three years. But having already hiked its rates in 2000, the USPS raised rates twice in 2001 and is now asking for a further increase of 10 percent–an increase that could cost The Nation well into the six figures. Rumor is rife that the MPA wants to "settle" the case in a way that could be prejudicial to the economics of magazines with smaller circulations, less advertising and more editorial content.

In the past, at the urging of companies like AOL Time Warner and Hearst, the USPS has granted discounts for things like sorting by ZIP code and trucking to particular mailing locations. On paper these discounts are available to all periodicals, but in reality they are profitable mainly for publications that can benefit from economies of scale. The most vulnerable are excluded from the savings. (As a result, it's cheaper on a pro-rata basis to mail big, heavy, advertising-saturated magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan than to mail thin, light, ad-free magazines like In These Times or Extra!)

This year, however, for the first time, independent periodicals may enjoy modest but real representation in the byzantine process of postal-rate-setting. Under the leadership of John Anner, the Independent Press Association (IPA), which represents 350 periodicals including The Nation (we are one of its largest members; most are nonprofits with circulation under 10,000), has hired counsel and is putting together a federation that will fight for the little guy.

None of this is to suggest that the USPS does not have its problems. As a result of rising labor costs, rival delivery systems like FedEx and its own inefficiencies, the service's annual losses in the budget year ending September 30 were estimated at $1.7 billion. And that's not counting September 11 and anthrax, which could cost the postal system well over $1 billion. Nevertheless, as our own Robert Sherrill has pointed out in the past, the postal subsidy, whatever it turns out to be, "is hardly a drain" when compared with agricultural and military subsidies.

The challenge the IPA faces is to make a politics out of what in the past has been an invisible issue–the right of the public to have access to ideas, perspectives, information, analysis and literature omitted from the mass media. Organizations like the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, the National Newspaper Association, the National Association of Hispanic Publications, the Independent Labor Communications Association, the Coalition of Religious Press Associations and others should all join IPA's federation.

Here is a chance not merely to fight rate increases that discriminate against independent and alternative journals and journalism but to introduce some democratic sense into the process. For example, the principle of postal subsidies is already in play. So instead of subsidies for mega-magazines, why not subsidies for periodicals with low circulation, especially those with low percentages of advertising or none at all? The advertisers have been given a free ride for far too long. Let neither snow, nor rain, nor heat stay the IPA's John Anner from his appointed rounds.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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