The postal system has been a key public infrastructure since the dawn of the US republic. Today, the United States Postal Service faces an existential threat as President Trump blocks a desperately needed emergency loan. Instead of defunding and privatizing the postal system, now’s an opportune moment to reimagine its purpose and revitalize it.
We’ve heard by now many compelling arguments for saving the USPS. It offers a secure and private means of communication (especially important with mail-in voting); it provides more than 600,000 jobs for a diverse workforce; and it ensures an essential service of delivering important goods (including prescription medicine) to far-flung locales at affordable and equal rates. Remarkably, the USPS serves as both a national communication network and a local anchor institution for small communities across the country. Its loss would be a profound blow to American culture and democracy.
But we should be striving for something bolder than just preserving a noble institution. Instead of fighting over whether to scrap or save the USPS, we should be pushing to expand it. Reimagining and repurposing this vital public infrastructure could yield tremendous benefits for all of society.
Recent years have witnessed increased calls for building on the postal system’s infrastructure by offering such services as postal banking. But one intriguing idea missing from these discussions is the post office’s unique potential for producing community-level news.
Given that local media institutions, especially newspapers, have been devastated in recent years—a crisis that’s been greatly accelerated by the pandemic—communities are increasingly losing access to reliable information. What if the post office were called upon to help save local journalism?
More than 30,000 post offices span the United States, covering small towns, suburbs, and urban centers. These spaces could serve as multimedia hubs for community journalism, especially within news deserts where local media outlets no longer exist. Along with libraries, universities, and public broadcasting stations, we could leverage such public infrastructure to provide institutional support for local journalism. These spaces could become centers for different kinds of community media, from weekly newspapers to municipal broadband networks.
A real-world example of this model has flourished in Urbana, Ill., for 15 years. In 2005, local media activists raised funds to purchase the historic downtown post office building. Over the years, citizen journalists have gathered there to produce a wide range of media, including a newspaper, low-power radio broadcasting, community wireless services, and a local-news website. A vibrant space for community activist and artistic programs, the center also houses an art gallery, a performance venue, a makerspace, public access computers, and a library.
Not all post office buildings are as large as Urbana’s, but all could accommodate public broadband services and a few reporters whose job it was to cover local affairs and produce community media. With proper subsidies, this model could be replicated across the country.
Given the devastation of so many core systems and infrastructures, our current crisis calls for redrawing boundaries between public and private ownership, defending public goods, and reclaiming essential services from the market. The idea that public services—whether the USPS or local news—should be subjected to unbridled commerce, with the sole criterion of profit justifying their existence, is absurd.
In fact, the postal system was never meant to pay for itself. Since 1792, it’s been subsidized as a core democratic infrastructure. In what was arguably the first major US communications policy debate, the nation’s founders determined that the post office’s civic purpose took precedence over a “fiscal rationale.” The notion that it should break even was roundly rejected. Instead, the US government heavily subsidized the postal system to circulate important information about public affairs to all citizens.
The universal service mission girding the post office was radical when it was founded, and it’s still revolutionary today. Its egalitarian logic reminds us what a different kind of society might look like—one founded on serving social needs instead of optimizing profits. It stands in stark contrast to an overly commercialized landscape that impoverishes public services and leaves entire communities and regions underserved.
From the postal system’s beginning, government support (such as reduced postage fees for newspapers) subsidized what was primarily a news-delivery infrastructure, ensuring that even rural communities had access to important information. Adjusting for inflation, this subsidy amounted to billions of dollars per year well into the 20th century. It’s time to reclaim this history and protect the post office’s original ideal of facilitating the exchange of ideas and providing equal access to news.
By converting tens of thousands of post offices into community media-making spaces, we’d strengthen the institution’s historic purpose of informing and connecting communities. This crisis presents a fleeting opportunity to not just salvage threatened public infrastructures but also reinvent and expand them. The future of our democracy may depend on it.