IMPENDING POSTAL RATE INCREASES THREATEN
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
The news media are covering the tragic murders in Virginia this morning, and as they do an extraordinarily significant story is slipping through the cracks.
On very rare occasions I send a message to everyone in my email address book on an issue that I find of staggering importance and urgency. (My address book includes pretty much everyone who emails me in one form or another, and I apologize if you get this message more than once.) This is one of those times.
There is a major crisis in our media taking place right now; it is getting almost no attention and unless we act very soon the consequences for our society could well be disastrous. And it will only take place because it is being done without any public awareness or participation; it goes directly against the very foundations of freedom of the press in the entirety of American history.
The U.S. Post Office is in the process of implementing a radical reformulation of its rates for magazines, such that smaller periodicals will be hit with a much much larger increase than the largest magazines.
Because the Post Office is a monopoly, and because magazines must use it, the postal rates always have been skewed to make it cheaper for smaller publications to get launched and to survive. The whole idea has been to use the postal rates to keep publishing as competitive and wide open as possible. This bedrock principle was put in place by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. They considered it mandatory to create the press system, the Fourth Estate necessary for self-government.
It was postal policy that converted the free press clause in the First Amendment from an abstract principle into a living breathing reality for Americans. And it has served that role throughout our history.
What the Post Office is now proposing goes directly against 215 years of postal policy. The Post Office is in the process of implementing a radical reformulation of its mailing rates for magazines. Under the plan, smaller periodicals will be hit with a much larger increase than the big magazines, as much as 30 percent. Some of the largest circulation magazines will face hikes of less than 10 percent.
The new rates, which go into effect on July 15, were developed with no public involvement or congressional oversight, and the increased costs could damage hundreds, even thousands, of smaller publications, possibly putting many out of business. This includes nearly every political journal in the nation. These are the magazines that often provide the most original journalism and analysis. These are the magazines that provide much of the content on Common Dreams. We desperately need them.
What the Post Office is planning to do now, in the dark of night, is implement a rate structure that gives the best prices to the biggest publishers, hence letting them lock in their market position and lessen the threat of any new competition. The new rates could make it almost impossible to launch a new magazine, unless it is spawned by a huge conglomerate.
Not surprisingly, the new scheme was drafted by Time Warner, the largest magazine publisher in the nation. All evidence available suggests the bureaucrats responsible have never considered the implications of their draconian reforms for small and independent publishers, or for citizens who depend upon a free press.
The corruption and sleaziness of this process is difficult to exaggerate. As one lawyer who works for a large magazine publisher admits, ÏIt takes a publishing company several hundred thousand dollars to even participate in these rate cases. Some large corporations spend millions to influence these rates.Ó Little guys, and the general public who depend upon these magazines, are not at the table when the deal is being made.
The genius of the postal rate structure over the past 215 years was that it did not favor a particular viewpoint; it simply made it easier for smaller magazines to be launched and to survive. That is why the publications opposing the secretive Post Office rate hikes cross the political spectrum. This is not a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue, it is a democracy issue. And it is about having competitive media markets that benefit all Americans. This reform will have disastrous effects for all small and mid-sized publications, be they on politics, music, sports or gardening.
This process was conducted with such little publicity and pitched only at the dominant players that we only learned about it a few weeks ago and it is very late in the game. But there is something you can do. Please go to www.stoppostalratehikes.com and sign the letter to the Postal Board protesting the new rate system and demanding a congressional hearing before any radical changes are made. The deadline for comments is April 23.
I know many of you are connected to publications that go through the mail, or libraries and bookstores that pay for subscriptions to magazines and periodicals. If you fall in these categories, it is imperative you get everyone connected to your magazine or operation to go to www.stoppostalratehikes.com.
We do not have a moment to lose. If everyone who reads this email responds at www.stoppostalratehikes.com , and then sends it along to their friends urging them to do the same, we can win. If there is one thing we have learned at Free Press over the past few years, it is that if enough people raise hell, we can force politicians to do the right thing. This is a time for serious hell-raising.
And to my friends from outside the United States, I apologize for cluttering your inbox. If you read this far, we can use your moral support.
From the bottom of my heart, thanks.
COPY OF ORIGINAL WASHINGTON MONTHLY ARTICLE
Going postal: Washington's recurring attempts to squeeze small magazines out of business
When I heard recently about the United States Postal Service's plans to hold hearings on hiking rates for periodical class mail--the bulk postage class which gives lower postal rates to magazines--it reminded me of the day in 1995 when I returned to the offices of The Nation after an executive training program at the Harvard Business School. I had been editing the magazine for 16 years when Arthur Carter, then the publisher, made me an offer I should have refused and sold me the magazine for money I didn't have. As I was making the transition from editor to publisher, imagine then my consternation on returning from Harvard to discover that the postal service had recommended the abolition of the the discounted mail class for periodicals. All of my new financial projections, I feared, would go up in smoke. We survived that round, but now I am worried again. If implemented, higher postal rates, whether the originally rumored 15 percent increase or the recently rumored "6% solution," could bankrupt many small circulation magazines. Although any change in rates would probably not go into effect until 2006, it seems to me that now is the time for the independent press community and all those who care about the free flow of information to mobilize.
In the mid-1980s, at a conference on the role of journals of opinion that we co-sponsored with the journalism department at the University of Southern California, I made a point of putting postal matters at the top of the agenda, since keeping postage costs under control was one of the few issues around which journals of the left, right, and center might organize to mutual advantage. Robert Myers, a former publisher of The New Republic, told us about how, in the 1960s, he had put together a group of small-circulation magazines whose purpose was precisely to promote their common postal interests and which had even come up with a constructive proposal that he persuaded congressman Morris Udall to introduce as legislation: that the first 250,000 copies (in Udall's bill, it was only 25,000) of all publications be mailable at reduced rates. That way, smaller publications and journals with heavy content (perhaps for reasons of high seriousness) would get the largest proportional benefit, but all magazines would get some benefit. Alas, the legislation never got anywhere.
The most articulate opposition to government help for small magazines came, surprisingly, from our friend Michael Kinsley, who had already come out against the second-class mail "subsidy," as he called it, in a 1975 article in The Washington Monthly. At the conference he boiled his continuing objections down to three: Since the readership of journals like The Nation, The New Republic, and National Review were largely drawn from the highly educated elite, whose income was above average, the second-class subsidy therefore amounted to "a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich." Second, the camel's nose of government got into the tent of subsidizing opinion journals, Kinsley argued, content requirements would be inevitably hooked to the subsidy, raising profound First Amendment concerns; and, third, since opinion journalists were supposed to be watchdogs against special interests, it was wrong for us to become one ourselves. Kinsley observed that right-wingers should oppose such subsidies because they interfered with the free market, and left-wingers because they were regressive.
It was a virtuoso performance, and Kinsley, his forensic skills sharpened by hundreds of hours on "Crossfire," had my vote as captain of the debate team. But then Tom Silk, the lawyer who successfully defended Mother Jones when the Reagan administration challenged its nonprofit tax status, made a telling point. Some things are too important to leave to the vicissitudes of the market, like national defense and clean air--even Kinsley conceded that these two were "public goods"--and public discourse and the dissemination of literature were two more.
And so, in 1995, when the trade press reported that the Postal Service (USPS) wanted to abolish second-class mail, my first impulse was to write an op-ed piece denouncing that agency. But that, I quickly realized, was the writer in me wanting to sound off. Now that I was a publisher (ahem) I had bigger guns to deploy. As a member of the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA), I assumed my trade group would be up in arms. So imagine my further consternation when I discovered that not only was the MPA not interested in challenging the USPS proposal, they were supporting it.
I had foolishly believed that since the MPA has a membership of 250 magazines, and since most of these magazines have circulations of 250,000 or under, they would represent their members' interest. No such luck; 20 percent of the MPA's members are responsible for 80 percent of its budget. Karl Marx was out of fashion, but he would surely have reminded me that if I had simply looked at the figures, I could have predicted MPA's position, the position of the mega-publishers, the position of Time Warner and Dow Jones.