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Our View

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Delivering some bad news

What would you say if we told you the cost of your subscription to The South Missourian News is going up 25 percent, with annual increases planned for the foreseeable future?

And what if we added that you will no longer receive it on the date of publication but days later -- maybe longer?

No need to answer that. We can guess what you'd say.

Now imagine what would happen if every community newspaper in the country announced the same changes. It would be no exaggeration to say this would forever alter the way generations of Americans have gotten their local news and information.

Such changes would, among other things, accelerate the decline in readership of the print editions of newspapers and the migration to Web-based news sources. That change may be inevitable, but forcing it too soon would leave many readers, especially the elderly, without a vital connection to their communities, a connection they have depended on their entire lives.

The newspaper industry is bracing for such a blow after the USPS Board of Governors announced last month at their meeting in Washington that the Postal Service is planning sweeping changes in its rates and organizational structure.

Among the proposals:

* Raising periodical mailing rates 20-25 percent in 2007, with incremental price hikes to follow annually.

* Closing mail processing centers in Little Rock, Fayetteville and Fort Smith, as well as in Tulsa and other Oklahoma locations, after opening a $101 million regional processing center in Oklahoma City (which the Postal Services bills, ironically, as a "cost saving" measure). The Oklahoma City plant will be a prototype for other processing centers slated to be built around the country.

* Making another round of systemwide upgrades in automation equipment that could prohibit publishers from entering newspapers at local post offices. The effect of this ruling would be delays in delivery of newspapers sent through the mail because we would be forced to enter them at regional processing centers, at considerable additional cost to the newspaper companies.

The National Newspaper Association, the country's largest newspaper trade association, plans to fight the proposed changes. But, because the proposals are still nebulous, the NNA is not sure exactly what we're fighting.

Tonda Rush, director of public policy for the NNA, of which The South Missourian News is a member, attended the USPS Board of Governors meeting, and immediately afterward alerted state newspaper association executive directors, including Tom Larimer of the Arkansas Press Association. Larimer and other association execs quickly spread the word (literally within hours) to newspapers across the country to make them aware of the proposals

Word spread so quickly, in fact, that newspaper publishers knew of the proposals even before postal officials at existing processing centers. The board of governors was apparently miffed that Rush let the cat out of the bag, even though they made the announcements with her present at the meeting (It never ceases to amaze us how often officials are surprised when we publish what they say to our reporters. Hello? That's what reporters do.)

Rush said the USPS "doesn't like our size or containers." She said they want to be able to run everything through the new super processing machine in Oklahoma City, and newspapers just don't fit the model -- which hints at the possibility that eventually we may not be able to enter newspapers at all. Larimer said the price hikes and new entry requirements appear to be designed to discourage newspaper companies from using the Postal Service to deliver our products, which it considers inconvenient.

NNA President Jerry Reppert has called a planning summit this August in Washington, D.C., to organize a strategy for reducing the scope of the proposed changes and blunt their harm to community newspapers, many of which operate on such small profit margins that rate hikes on the scale the postal service proposes would put them out of business.

Because Arkansas newspapers will be among the most immediately and adversely affected by the proposals, the NNA particularly requested representation from the state. Larimer and this writer, in my role as 2006 president of the Arkansas Press Association, have already made reservations.

Small newspapers like The South Missourian News have few alternatives to postal delivery. Carrier delivery, the norm for large metro dailies, has proven to be cost prohibitive for most community newspapers. Newsstands are convenient for many readers but not for others, especially the elderly, those with handicaps and those living in remote locations. Web editions of newspapers are growing in popularity, but today more newspapers are losing money than making money on the Internet, a state of affairs that can't continue indefinitely.

Newspapers have trusted and depended on the postal service to deliver our products for generations. One reason the working relationship between our industry and the postal service has been so strong is the personal relationships we have built with local postal employees. When you sit in the next pew at church with the postmaster, when a rural postal carrier coaches your child's Little League team, when you serve on the chamber of commerce board with a local postal clerk, then you have more than just an impersonal business connection. It is a relationship in which both partners are committed to serving customers they know.

The truth of this was borne out just two weeks ago when the USPS implemented a new restriction that forbids mailing bags of less than 24 pieces.

We already presort our newspapers into mailing bags and pay many different rates for delivery of our product, depending on location, weight, percentage of advertising and number of papers in each bundle. Under the new rule, rural routes in Koshkonong, Evening Shade and other small communities that have only 20 or 23 newspapers must now, at least officially, be routed through regional processing centers instead of delivered straight to the delivery post office from the entry post office. The result, naturally, is a delay in delivery.

We polled postmasters at post offices where newspapers are entered throughout the area and found varying responses. One was not aware of the rule and planned no change in delivery. Another was aware of the new requirement and planned to enforce it to the letter. Others were somewhere in between -- aware of the rule but not planning to enforce it until forced to do so by Postal Service.

This is not to point out that postal regulations are enforced unevenly, but to illustrate the importance of personal relationships; local postal workers are more likely to be concerned with serving residents of the community than complying with mindless bureaucratic rules handed down from Washington.

We frequently get complaints from readers outside the area that their newspapers arrive up to a week late, and sometimes they get two editions the same week. Even though we mail all the newspapers of each issue at the same time -- the day before the publication date -- the time of delivery varies a great deal.

We have a hard time explaining to out-of-state readers why their papers don't arrive in a timely fashion. The readers always ask, "Where is my paper?"

We can't tell them where it is, but we can tell them where it isn't. It's not sitting in the post office at Thayer, Cherokee Village, Salem or Mammoth Spring. And it's probably not sitting in the reader's local post office. It is most likely at one of the distribution centers in between where the postal workers don't know us and don't know our readers.

We oppose the changes, which will hurt our readers. And we suspect the local Postal Service employees oppose the changes for the same reason. We yet hope to persuade the USPS to reverse course, but we're bracing for the worst.