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Could shrinking the post office help newspapers?

Surprisingly, there have been no blogospherical reactions (nor any big ripples elsewhere) to the Postmaster General’s ruminations last week before Congress, in which he hinted that perhaps mail delivery would need to be curtailed to five days a week. His thought is not to drop Saturday, but to eliminate a lighter day, like Tuesday, in order to help the Postal Service deal with a growing annual deficit that’s projected to hit $6 billion in the current fiscal year.

The travails of the post office are being blamed in part on reductions in the volume of periodicals (newspapers and magazines) being mailed.  Of more relevance here, any cut in postal frequency would have an impact on newspapers that are mailed, especially those that enjoy day-of-publication delivery.  This includes many weeklies that rely almost exclusively on postal distribution.  Among dailies, few rely heavily on the mail, but nearly all morning papers have some same-day postal delivery arrangements to reach customers in areas their own carriers don’t (or won’t) travel to.  The Wall Street Journal once mailed most of their subscriber copies.  It now has alternate arrangements (many via local newspaper carriers) in most areas, but still mails some copies.  And of course the Christian Science Monitor is mostly mailed, but is going digital-only soon.

First of all, the plan’s chances of getting a Congressional OK to cut delivery frequency may be slim to none (although if a forum at SiLive.com is any indication, customers wouldn’t have a big problem with it: “Good, bills will come 5 days a week instead of six”).

But just as newspapers should be totally reinventing their business (as I’ve been espousing) rather than cutting here and trimming there until there’s nothing left to reinvent, so should the Postal Service be reinventing itself in a fundamental way, rather than changing incrementally.  (If Jeff Jarvis can talk about What Google Would Do if it ran an car company, then I can talk about a Googly reinvention of the Post Office.)

And there may actually be a better mesh between a reinvented post office and a reinvented news business.  I’ve been suggesting at every opportunity an online-first, weekend-print-only news enterprise.  I’m convinced that demographic and economic forces will push newspapers in that direction, sooner rather than later.  The post office should be asking: how often does physical mail (they don’t call it snail mail) really need to hit mailboxes?

There was a time when, in cities, the mailmen in major cities (no “letter carriers” yet in those days) came twice a day, six days a week.  Eventually, telephone and telegraph made that superfluous, so they cut it in half to just once a day.  (Twice-daily was never universal, and seems to have ended variously by location, but was still the practice as late as the 1930s or 40s in some areas.)

Now that widespread Internet access is usurping most of the functionality of first class mail (the volume of which is plummeting along a curve similar to that of newspaper revenue) why not cut the delivery schedule in half again, to three times a week, or even twice a week — would anyone care?  Or even, horror of horrors, deliver mail just once a week — but with a continuation of Priority Mail, parcel delivery and other profitable premium services  on a daily basis.  In other words, match each service and its price to the needs of customers, rather than offering nearly all services at the same daily level.  Businesses or individuals with some critical dependence on more frequent delivery of mail could pay a premium for that service (just as the post office already offers Sunday or holiday delivery of Express Mail at a $12.50 premium).

Now, I can already hear the uproar emanating from the offices of the National Newspaper Association, which represents community newspapers heavily dependent on postal delivery and which lobbies hard to protect newspapers’ postal interests.  But as they know, the post office doesn’t reinvent itself overnight; in fact, its usual pace of change is glacial, if not geologic.  Postal reinvention should be an open, public process (As Jarvis Would Say).  Community newspapers would have time to adapt.

In fact, this could be an opportunity for newspapers, which own a huge single-purpose delivery network themselves, to find ways to actually increase their delivery business by contracting to deliver all manner of  periodicals, not just their own.  They might also regain some of the  money they’ve yielded over the years to direct marketing, a. k. a.  junk mail, which today gets a bigger slice of total ad dollars than newspapers do.  Ultimately, they could spin off that delivery arm, along with their printing divisions, retaining just the fully digital news business they should be focused on.

As a footnote, I notice that the Detroit newspapers plan to offer postal delivery as an option on the days they’re eliminating their own deliveries.  Given that the Detroit plans are ill conceived to begin with, I would not suggest regarding that as something for other papers to emulate.

(Photo from Flickr user BDegan used under Creative Commons license.)

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
  • logic

    It is obvious that the writer of this article has simply NO idea of what the job of a mail carrier requires.
    In concept, it appears fine. In practise, with ALL the pertinent information used to form a logical conclusion, it is sorely lacking. JMHO

  • logic

    Please forgive the spelling, kids come first. lol

  • Randolph T. Holhut

    Maybe in urban areas, or places where broadband is more ubiquitous, you could argue that once-a-week mail delivery is sufficient.

    In Vermont, where I live, the USPS is more reliable than internet providers (let alone FedEx and UPS) and arguably more important.

    I am fortunate enough to be served by one of the best post offices in the state, and the level of their service borders on the heroic.

    In rural America, the USPS remains an essential service. It delivers where private carriers fear to tread. It provides its service at a competitive price. Sure, email is great, but there are times where it won’t suffice.

    I can count on being able to get a letter or package anywhere within 1,500 miles of Vermont in two business days, and anywhere else in the lower 48 within three business days, and all for 42 cents for a letter and under $5 for an 8 ounce package. No private service can touch this for speed, reliability and cost.

    The point of having a national postal service is universal service to the entire nation at a low cost. Once-a-week first-class mail delivery, with premium prices charged for what we now receive for USPS service, is a ridiculous idea.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Randy, you’re right that broadband penetration is not what it needs to be, but there’s consensus that some national investment is needed to get us closer to that, just as once upon a time, “rural free delivery” became a promise fulfilled.

    My main suggestion is that the post office needs to ask itself not “how little can we cut to balance the budget,” but, “how much of our service is essential.” The answer to that would not be six days a week, whether there’s anything to deliver or not. Once, twice or three times weekly, with premium service the rest of the time, is a more likely answer.

  • http://deadtreeedition.blogspot.com/ D. Eadward Tree

    There have indeed been blogospherical reactions to Potter’s testimony. Dead Tree Edition posted an item (http://deadtreeedition.blogspot.com/2009/01/smarter-smaller-postal-service.html) hours later praising Potter’s testimony. The Postal Affairs Blog had a post (http://www.intelisent.com/postalaffairsblog/?p=487) providing more perspective on Potter’s proposal than I’ve seen in any news reports.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Thanks, Eadward. To clarify for others, Mr. “Tree” is the author of Dead Tree Edition.

  • Postmarc

    “why not cut the delivery schedule in half again, to three times a week, or even twice a week — would anyone care? Or even, horror of horrors, deliver mail just once a week — but with a continuation of Priority Mail, parcel delivery and other profitable premium services on a daily basis. In other words, match each service and its price to the needs of customers, rather than offering nearly all services at the same daily level.

    Because, you blathering idiot, the USPS has always know what the competition has recently discovered: Going along the same route every day for six days a week will NEVER be less expensive than when done by the company that has done it for 234 years. We don’t wait for one day to deliver the mail, we deliver whatever comes that day. That’s how it’s always been, that’s how it’ll always be.

    There’s a reason why FedEx and UPS gave us 300 Million parcels to deliver for them last year. They can’t touch our cost to deliver it. And they PAID us to deliver their crap. WHY? Because we were already going there. The letters come along for the ride.

    So what if First Class mail is dropping. If nobody’s noticed lately….the USPS is fast becoming very competitive on pricing and delivery of parcels. And quitcher bitching about a quasi-governmental entity going head to head with private business.

    Have you checked the FedEx standard overnight rates compared to Express Mail lately? We kick their ass by anywhere from $5 to $35 from Flat Rate to 10 lbs. ANYWHERE in the US.

    Open your eyes. This ain’t your daddy’s Post Office. Not by a longshot.