Monday, July 05, 2010

Going Postal: Publishing Industry, WaPo Blogger Get Whacked

Publishing as we know it may soon take another hit if the United States Postal Service gets its way. According to the New York Times this morning, Postmaster General John E. Potter (not a relative of mine as far as I know) wants to raise the rates it charges to deliver periodicals in 2011. Currently, the USPS loses $7 billion a year, and Potter notes that periodical rates do not actually cover the cost of delivery. As those of us who are subscribers to progressive magazines and journals know, periodicals that favor content over advertising will be particularly hard hit by a postage increase, and will have to raise their subscription rates -- thus risking cancellations.

The Magazine Publishers of America intend to litigate the increase, so with restraining orders and all, don't worry about Mother Jones having to bite the bullet yet. However, as publishing is groaning under the strain of lost advertising dollars and increased production costs, the cost of postage may be one more push towards Internet-only subscriptions.

The other side of this, of course, is that the delivery of mail is critical to what it means to be a nation, and a foundation for national culture. The founders recognized this when, in 1775, they appointed Benjamin Franklin Postmaster General of the United States -- even prior to declaring independence. In 1896, Congress marked the transition from empire building to nation building in the West and Southwestern states by establishing Rural Free Delivery.

But in 1982, in its wisdom, the Reagan administration decided that the USPS should run like a business and balance its books. Not that those things necessarily go together -- but the Postal Service had never operated without a healthy federal subsidy and there was no reason to think that it ever would.

Whether we need to have as many magazines as we do, and whether they all need to -- or should -- be delivered by mail, is another question, and it ought to be addressed in a comprehensive way that takes many factors -- not just cost -- into account. Already it is possible to get numerous publications by Internet only if you choose to do so, and the amount of paper and fuel saved would be significant if publishers and readers had incentives to move to electronic formats.

There are industry-wide decisions that need to be made in publishing about how the vitality of American national culture is going to be maintained in this fiscal, ecological and technological environment. Is driving publishers out of business by threatening their subscription and advertising base even further the way to do it? Of course $7 billion a year is a lot of money. But would it be rude to point out that in fiscal 2010, the federal government will be spending over $10 billion per month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Postscript: In case you didn't know that major newspapers don't really know what blogs are for, click here for the stuffy WaPo firing conservative blogger Dave Weigel for making rude and juvenile remarks about conservatives on a private list serve. According to David Carr of the New York Times:

In comments made mostly before he was hired at The Washington Post three months ago, Mr. Weigel used the term “Paultard” to describe followers of Ron Paul and also suggested that Patrick Buchanan was “an anti-Semite” and that Newt Gingrich was an “amoral blowhard.” More recently, he wrote that Matt Drudge, the conservative aggregator and blogger behind The Drudge Report, should “set himself on fire.”

Invoking the mentally disabled as the equivalent of Ron Paul supporters was mean and in poor taste, but what exactly did Weigel say about Buchanan, Gingrich and Drudge that any number of people might not agree with? While the weirdness of conservatives gnawing on each other is always entertaining, I'm curious as to when it was exactly that firing people for being rude became the corporate reflex? Probably around the same time that celebrities I don't know and don't care about began apologizing to me for marital infidelity. If idiocy that bloggers don't even post on their employer's website is now a violation of industry standards, don't you wonder why Maureen Dowd doesn't get fired every day?


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Oh, TR, we've been wondering why Maureen Dowd doesn't get fired every day for a thousand years. Yeah, we're that old. And she's that bad. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Ahistoricality said...

Invoking the mentally disabled as the equivalent of Ron Paul supporters was mean and in poor taste

To be clear, it was "mean and in poor taste" with regard to the mentally disabled, who should not have to be associated with those whose intellectual limitations are self-imposed.

And Weigel was not, according to the accounts I've read, a "conservative blogger" but a moderate reporter whose coverage of the conservative movement has been responsible and thorough, and for which he was hired.

On the larger issue, while official mail systems may have been a critical early modern marker of national unity, I don't really think that it's still quite so fundamental. Nonetheless, it qualifies as a critical service which a neutral government can provide which private enterprise cannot, and as such should be handled as an infrastructure investment, an important economic and social tool, rather than as a business proposition.

Historiann said...


I'm *sure* that if Weigel had merely changed one letter in his bad words (PaultUrd, not PaultArd), it would have saved his job. This is like when Melissa McEwan and Amanda Marcotte were fired by the John Edwards '08 campaign almost as soon as they were hired, because someone somewhere on the internets found something they wrote to be offensive. (Yes, the same John Edwards who it turns out was simultaneously knocking up someone to whom he was not married. Dude had the nerve to lecture them about "propriety.")

As they say on the snark-o-nets: "Call the WHAAAAAAmbuance!"

As for U.S. mail: Personally, I think it's a miracle of the modern world that I can stick a 44 cent stamp on a wad of paper and it will get anywhere I want it to go in the U.S. I don't see why government needs to turn a profit. Some things are worth paying for. That's why they call it the *price* of civilization.

IK said...

It's unavoidable, the decline and fall of print media. I just hope it doesn't happen before I get a device that lets me read magazines on the subway.

P.S. right-on about Maureen. Totally.

Anonymous said...

For another point of view on the proposed postal increase, see

If you subscribe to periodicals that you perceive to have valuable content, then perhaps you should consider paying their full cost, instead of relying on others to subsidize them for you. And cutting down the amount of junk mail certainly wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

Tenured Radical said...


Cutting down on junk mail would be great - but they are not periodicals.

Furthermore, my logic is slightly different from yours: that as a society we benefit from an expanded public culture, and the decision about how to support that (which might rightly be coupled with an awareness of paper waste & its expense) should not begin by simply shrinking the intelligent media and putting people out of business (and out of work).

in addition, the logic of "Why should my tax dollars pay for your _____" is a ridiculous canard when it comes to national policies, and it is even more ridiculous when it comes to reading. A literate, informed and educated citizenry is good for all of us. Your comment suggests that it would be perfectly fine to have a nation of non-readers, or people "choosing" not to read; or people who had no access to intelligent political work of all kinds because they can't afford it (you do realize that library budgets are being slashed all over too?) The founders didn't believe that and neither do I.

Anonymous said...

TR,for being an avid (and presumably educated) reader, you certainly managed to misread my earlier post. Where in my post did I suggest that it would be "perfectly fine to have a nation of non-readers"? Could you quote that part of my post? Perhaps you could be a little more careful in reading and interpreting the posts of others.

Anonymous said...

TR, I can think of a few "Why should my tax dollars pay for your ___?" that you would probably agree with. Just fill in the blank with "Iraq war" or "parochial school education".