Postage Hikes Threaten Print Media

Like all print media—from mainstream corporate conglomerates to alternative
independent publishers—Z Magazine has suffered declining readership and
sales in the past few years. This trend has been blamed primarily on reader
migration to the internet, and secondarily on diminishing literacy and
reading habits. Due to corporate consolidation in distribution and promotion,
though, independent media are suffering more than the corporate mainstream. 

The latest bad news for independent print media came over the past few
months when the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) announced a complex new payment
rate system for mailed periodicals. Following a postal rate increase of
about 5 percent last year, publishers had been told to expect another rate
increase of around 12 percent this year. Instead, the proposed plan might
cost us up to 30-40 percent more. 

The new rate system is designed to benefit large media conglomerates, whose
mailing cost increases will be far less than smaller, independent publications.
Some of the largest publications will even see their postal costs decrease
as small publications face massive cost increases. There’s a reason for
this—the plan the USPS adopted was largely written by Time Warner Inc.,
the world’s largest media conglomerate. 

Last year, the Postal Service tasked the independent Postal Regulatory
Committee (PRC) with coming up with a plan to increase revenues. The USPS
itself offered a plan for a periodical rate increase that would have raised
costs for all publishers, more or less evenly, by around 12 percent. During
the public comment period, Time Warner submitted their proposal. 

The Time Warner plan offered various incentives that could only be realized
by large publishing groups, such as co-palletizing large numbers of magazines
together or drop shipping from within postal zones via centralized printing
and distribution centers. Rates for periodicals that could not meet the
new incentives would increase dramatically. 

To the surprise of many, the PRC announced in late February that it was
going with a plan similar to Time Warner’s, instead of adopting what the
USPS had originally suggested. In March the USPS allowed only eight days
for public comment on the 758-page PRC plan before they adopted it. This
plan is so complex that even two months later publishers such as the Nation
and Mother Jones have said they still cannot calculate exactly how much
more their postal costs will be, though the Nation is currently estimating
an increase of perhaps $500,000. 

Media historian Robert Mc- Chesney quotes a lawyer for a large magazine
publisher as saying, “It takes a publishing company several hundred thousand
dollars to even participate in these rate cases. Some large corporations
spend millions to influence these rates.” McChesney also points out that
the increases are a “radical reformulation” which “goes directly against
215 years of postal policy.” Postal discounts for periodicals had been
promoted by early U.S. leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
to allow the population “full information of their affairs,” specifically
intended for small political publications to “penetrate the whole mass
of the people.” Even Federalist Alexander Hamilton (as a fiscally conservative
Treasury Secretary) conceded that such rate discounts were necessary for
the good of the country. 

A letter from several small publishers sent to the USPS Board of Governors
in April said, “These new rates will have grave consequences for disseminating
the very type of information our founding fathers strove to protect and
foster when they first established the public postal service.” According
to a study by McGraw Hill cited in the letter, “Some small magazines will
no doubt go out of business. Some will be forced to produce a lesser product
to pay for these increases.” 

Though the public comment period has passed, public outcry against the
plan has been growing and is having some effect. Implementation of the
new fee structure has been delayed from May until July 15, and a “Stamp
Out The Rate Hikes” campaign is underway to generate further public opposition
through letters and other actions. 

Left media’s problems are systemic, but not impossible to overcome. Foundations
and wealthy donors are not usually friendly to organizations like ours,
which promote a restructuring of society along non-hierarchical lines from
below. Instead, radical left media in the U.S., from book publishers to
alternative weeklies, need ongoing help from our communities of readers
and grassroots supporters. 

As the devastating effects of neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative
military adventures continue to spread across the globe, it’s up to all
of us to keep spreading the stories of resistance and to keep alive the
few outlets promulgating these stories, especially within the heart of
the empire itself.