Stamp Out the Rate Hikes: Stop New Postal Rules from Stifling America’s Independent Media

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“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a
government without newspapers, or newspapers without
a government, I should not hesitate a moment to
prefer the latter.”
—Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 16, 1787
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Our nation’s founders understood the First Amendment
would be worth little without a postal system that encouraged
broad public participation in America’s “marketplace
of ideas.”
Thomas Jefferson supported this with calls for a postal
service that allowed citizens to gain “full information of
their affairs,” where ideas could “penetrate the whole mass
of the people.” Along with James Madison, he paved the
way for a service that gave smaller political journals a voice.
Their solution included low-cost mailing incentives whereby
publications could reach as many readers as possible.
Other founders soon came to understand that the press
as a political institution needed to be supported through
favorable postal rates. President George Washington spoke
out for free postage for newspapers through the mail, and
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton—no proponent of
government deficit—conceded that incentives were necessary
to spawn a viable press.
The postal policies that resulted have lasted for more
than 200 years, spurring a vibrant political culture in the
United States. They have eased the entry of diverse political
viewpoints into a national discourse often dominated
by the largest media organizations.
Our free press did not happen magically; it was built on
the foundation of postal policies that encouraged small
publications and dissident ideas to spout and flourish. The
postal system is based on policies of public service and
democratic values.
TIME WARNER REWRITES HISTORY. ALL OF
THIS COULD CHANGE IN 2007.
In an unprecedented move, the agency that oversees
postal rates in the United States has approved a plan that
would unravel much of what the founders accomplished.
Earlier this year, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC)
rejected a postal rate increase plan offered by the U.S.
Postal Service. Instead they opted to implement a modified
version of an extraordinarily complicated plan submitted
by media giant Time Warner.
Although there was a formal review and comment
process—to be fair, the PRC did everything by the book—
the matter was so complicated and unreported that the
general public played no role whatsoever, and publications
that could not afford significant lobbying and lawyer
fees faced high barriers to effective participation.
Make no mistake about it, this is a Public Issue. We all
lose if the media system loses numerous small publications
due to massive postal rate hikes and if it becomes
cost prohibitive for new magazines to be launched in the
future. This is not an issue that should be determined
exclusively by the owners of magazines, with the biggest
owners having the loudest voice.
This year’s rate increase was somewhat inevitable, as
the postal service struggles to meet its costs. The method
of rate hikes was hotly contested. Postal rates for magazines
are basically a zero-sum game. Lower rates for some
magazines, and others must pick up the cost. The USPS
offered a plan to the postal Commission that featured relatively
equitable increases for all magazines. Most magazines
were budgeting for a 10-12 percent increase. The
Time Warner plan proposed higher costs for small publishers
and discounts for big publishers. The Time Warner
plan is so complex that many publications are still unclear
what their rate hikes will be if implemented; those smaller
publications that have been able to do the math are finding
shocking increases on tap, as high as 25-30 percent.
The Time Warner plan represents another step (albeit a
giant step) in the gradual reversal of the Founders’ public
service principles of supporting democracy through the
postal service. It is the latest, largest move towards abandoning
these public service priorities and permitting a system
that no longer favors low-advertising, political
speech—like In These Times and The American Spectator—
over ad-heavy magazines like People and Cosmo.
The practical result of this move is not only the decline of
a democratic mission, but a rate shock for small and medium
size magazines even as big publishers are getting a
break.
THIS IS A BATTLE FOR THE INTERNET, TOO
It is ironic that America’s first and arguably most brilliant
media policy is also a crucial policy for keeping the Internet
open and vibrant. Much of the material on the web
sites people visit that covers public affairs is generated by
these print publications. Much of the material bloggers
address originates in these print publications.
If these publications are forced to slash their editorial
budgets—or even go out of business –to pay the massive
postal rate increases brought on by the Time Warner plan,
it will shrink the range and quality of material available on
the Internet.
There is still no clear business model to support quality
journalism online, and these print publications provide the
resources to pay for the journalists and writers whose
material is available in cyberspace. If the print publications
do not exist, these stories do not get written. As our friends
at National Review have noted, there would be no National
Review Online “without the print-magazine mothership.”
FIGHT BACK: TELL CONGRESS TO ACT
This year’s rate hikes culminate a long period in which the
subsidy for small publications has been eroding. It is imperative
that Congress, which is ultimately responsible, intervene
to protect the postal subsidy for small publications that
is the foundation for the free press in the United States.
And Congress must intervene quickly to see that the
July 15 rate hike does not have the unintended consequence
of severely punishing countless small and medium-
sized publications, perhaps driving hundreds out of
business.
Congress must now step in to protect smaller media
from these unfair rate hikes.
The Postal Service should not be forced to use its
monopoly power to favor the largest publishers at the
expense of smaller ones. We need to return to the enlightened
postal policy that has guided our nation so well for
the past 215 years.
Demand a formal and open accounting of why more than
200 years of pro-democracy postal policy was abandoned.
The new postal rates went into effect on July 15th. Efforts
are now underway to rescind them.
This article was previously published on www.freepress.net.
Full references, as well as up-to-date information are available
at this web site.

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