Columnists > From the Publisher

Who will deliver us?

At least AOL has private competition; USPS is the only game in town

Issue: "JOhn Q. Citizen," Feb. 8, 1997

Like tens of thousands of other folks around the world, I'm angry at a private company called America Online. Much like the government's Postal Service, AOL has promised all kinds of service it regularly fails to provide.

Even WORLD readers who aren't customers of America Online must have read and heard of the company's gigantic customer service fiasco in recent weeks. AOL is the world's biggest provider of access to the Internet, offering communications services for both individuals and businesses.

When I joined the AOL family a year ago, I became an instant enthusiast. Checking my electronic mailbox every morning was a kick-bringing instant, low-cost communication not just with family members around the country but with missionaries, nationals, and other acquaintances around the world.

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Much more important, however, was the significance of such a service for publishing WORLD. Readers might be surprised to know that I am the only regular writer for WORLD whose desk is right here in the Asheville office. Editor Marvin Olasky works from Austin, Texas. Managing editor Nick Eicher works from St. Louis. Other contributors are scattered across the country and around the world, regularly sending copy, drafts, and editorial suggestions back and forth among themselves dozens of times every week.

We have done all this, for the most part, over the last two or three years using the services of America Online. When you keep in mind that we were all using fairly new and untested systems, it worked pretty well and at remarkably low cost. For all these hundreds of messages every week, we were communicating effectively at a cost of only a few hundred dollars a month.

Then disaster struck. AOL's top muckety-mucks, responding to competition, offered their service at a flat fee for unlimited access-just like most local Internet providers. The predictable result was that demand for AOL's service increased so instantly and so dramatically that the company couldn't possibly provide what it promised. Customers-like WORLD's writers and editors-now spend hours rather than minutes trying to get through, and AOL has become, as The Wall Street Journal put it, &quotthe busy signal heard round the world." Worse, AOL went into denial, pretending it had no problem. As a result, AOL is now suffering a blistering series of bad press notices. It's a classic case of a good idea going bad.

Sadly, however, the aol experience was neither WORLD's first nor worst experience with bad delivery.

While AOL is sinking under the volume of undeliverable messages, the U.S. Postal Service has had huge problems of its own. Due partly to continuing staff cutbacks and partly to an ill-timed &quotreclassification" program involving most periodicals and bulk mail, last fall USPS found itself horrendously behind in the only task it has-delivering the mail.

For WORLD readers, the USPS problem has been much worse than the AOL failure has been for WORLD's editors. USPS's own standards say most of you should get WORLD before the cover date, and all of you should have it no later than a couple of days after the cover date. But in fact, many of you now regularly get the magazine a week or 10 days after the cover date. (WORLD is actually placed in the mail stream every Saturday in Cincinnati, one week before the cover date). Three times since last September, I have had two separate issues of WORLD delivered to my home in the same mail-and many of you have reported the same incredible circumstance.

For this non-service, WORLD pays a weekly postage bill of $12,000-or a little more than 16 cents per copy. Lest you think that's a bargain compared to the 32 cents you have to put on a first-class letter, remember that we have to do all the sorting ourselves to qualify for that rate; we also spend money to add a barcode beneath your address so USPS's automated equipment can handle it faster. For that expense and bother, we get the privilege of waiting a week or two to have WORLD's timely news coverage delivered to you, often more slowly than in the days of Pony Express. No, that's not a figure of speech. Pony Express riders in 1860 took eight to nine days to carry mail the 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacrament, Calif.; the USPS beats that time some weeks, but misses it frequently.

But here's the difference: it's been an easy matter, after just three or four weeks' unhappiness with America Online, to cancel our service with them and move on. Happily, there are dozens of other providers ready to offer similar service at similar or even lower rates. And they do it without busy signals.

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