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Aug. 19, 2020, 9:11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Vice wants to send you print mail to help you understand the plight of the United States Postal Service

“We’ve always joked that we should print out our articles and hand them out door to door, so we could talk to our readers, and this is kind of like doing that.”

Last year, Aaron Gordon, a senior writer for Vice’s Motherboard, received a handwritten tip in the mail about Post Office delivery trucks catching on fire.

The tip led Gordon to file a records request, which, six months later, resulted in thousands of pages of fire investigation reports. This past July, his story, “Post Office delivery trucks keep catching on fire,” led readers to send him even more tips (his author tag is now mostly dominated by photos of USPS trucks).

Gordon’s entrance into the Post Office beat is now proving unexpectedly useful as the plight of the U.S. Postal Service has become a national news story in recent weeks. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the safest choice for many U.S. citizens will be to vote by mail rather than in person. President Donald Trump is attempting to restrict voting by mail — claiming without evidence that it leads to widespread fraud, even as he and Melania Trump voted by mail in Florida’s primary on Tuesday — and has rejected an emergency bailout for the U.S. Postal Service. (On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican Party and Trump campaign megadonor who took office in June, said that he would suspend some operational changes, like removing collection boxes, reducing post office hours, and cutting postal workers’ overtime pay, until after the election.)

Recognizing the role that USPS would play in the election, Vice is launching “The Mail,” a free, weekly pop-up email newsletter. People who are especially interested in USPS can pay $8 a month for a monthly print zine with extra content like art, handwritten letters, and bonus issues of the newsletter. The Mail launches next week on August 25 and runs through the end of November. The newsletter is hosted on Substack and the hardcopy zines will be mailed through the USPS.

“Recent events have been very important and are changing the way the Post Office functions, but much of the situation the Post Office finds itself in today is the product of events that happened a long time ago,” Gordon told me. “A lot of that doesn’t fall under what we call traditional news coverage. I can’t tell my editor I should write an article about something that happened in 1970. But a newsletter is a good way to contextualize a lot of that past information with current events in a way that feels natural to readers.”

As supporting the USPS becomes a viral cause on social media, misinformation is spreading too.

Gordon said that both the email newsletter and the print zine will give news consumers more context about what’s happening.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what the Post Office is and what purpose it serves,” Gordon said. “The Post Office is not getting defunded. When the United States Postal Service was created in 1971, the express purpose of it was that it did not receive any funding from the federal government, but it was completely self-funding based on the revenue you get from selling postage and whatnot. The idea that Trump is defunding the Post Office just isn’t accurate. He’s trying to block the stimulus funding, which is a totally different dynamic.”

Gordon said that the content of the newsletter and zine offer a more holistic perspective on what’s going on with USPS rather than day-to-day election security talk, or roundups of policies and implementations by DeJoy or the Trump administration. Motherboard editor-in-chief Jason Koebler said that both products offer a new opportunity for audience engagement.

“Motherboard is a publication whose stories come from reporters who spend all their time deep on the internet,” Koebler told me in an email. “We get scoops sometimes that go viral and are read by a lot of people, which is great, but there are also people who read Motherboard every day, who listen to our podcasts, who watch our documentaries, and a lot of that always feels kind of one-sided. We don’t hear from them or talk to them except for on Twitter sometimes. We’ve always joked that we should print out our articles and hand them out door to door, so we could talk to our readers, and this is kind of like doing that. We can probably be a little looser and more conversational and play with design and interactivity and Easter eggs in the zine than we can on the website.”

Mailing out the zine through the USPS was a no-brainer, Koebler said. There was no reason not to. “If five people subscribe, we’ll have staffers design something, we’ll print it out on the printer I have in my bedroom, I’ll fold them, buy some stamps, and take them to the Post Office. If 50,000 people subscribe we’ll do the same thing design-wise, but we can work with a professional printer to help us print, address, and mail them. Either way it’s going to be a fun experiment, and either way, we’re going to be very thankful to our readers.”

“We’ve also always been a publication that’s written about election security, hacking, security on the internet,” he continued. “Now we’ve got a digital newsletter about election security, about one of the oldest technologies we’ve developed. The zine will be about the Post Office but will also include articles and art about more Motherboard-y topics — hacking, algorithms, labor, video games, online communities, digital rights, etc. I like the dichotomy of having an email about paper mail and paper mail about the internet.”

POSTED     Aug. 19, 2020, 9:11 a.m.
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