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Stamped out

Media | Large and sudden postal rate hikes threaten the viability of independent magazines

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

The respective staffs of The Nation, a leftist weekly, and National Review, a conservative biweekly, share few political agreements. But leaders from both magazines, along with dozens of other independent media publishers, are standing together against a dire threat to the future of their publications. Their common enemy: postage.

Rate hikes slated to take effect July 15 would cripple many small and medium-sized periodicals, diminishing the competition for print media powerhouses and furthering the traditional news industry's trend toward corporate consolidation. According to an analysis by The McGraw-Hill Companies, the complex plan would raise the cost of postage at least 20 percent for 5,700 publications and at least 30 percent for hundreds more. Meanwhile, large magazines would benefit from much smaller increases, some even receiving rate reductions.

Such dramatic and sudden changes threaten to eliminate thousands of the smallest journals, whose mailing costs make up the bulk of their budgets. More established independent media, such as The Nation, National Review, and WORLD, figure to weather the storm but may undergo significant editorial cutbacks or need to sharply raise subscription rates, both recipes for decreased circulation and influence.

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Accordingly, a movement to prevent or delay the rate hikes is underway. Free Press, a national nonpartisan activist group, has organized a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the Postal Board of Governors (BOG). Campaign director Tim Karr said more than 70,000 individuals have written their congressmen. And dozens of publishers have signed a letter to the BOG calling for additional review and modifications that would spread added postage costs evenly to publications of all sizes (WORLD management has endorsed the campaign).

The initial USPS plan to increase rates, submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) in May of last year, proposed an across-the-board hike of about 12 percent for all periodicals. To the shock of many industry leaders, the PRC rejected that plan in favor of one submitted by Time Warner, the world's leading magazine publisher with Time, People, and Sports Illustrated among its 130 titles. "That smells funny," Karr said. "It raises some serious concerns that at this point require congressional intervention."

A congressional investigation into the reasoning behind the new postage rates appears likely. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, has pledged to press for a hearing on the matter.

Implementation of the Time Warner plan would effectively alter more than 200 years of USPS policy, which has always subsidized the dissemination of diverse viewpoints with special low rates for magazines. Many of the nation's founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, helped establish that principle as a necessity in a properly functioning democracy.

The internet now protects that principle apart from special postage rates and provides unlimited distribution potential for independent publishers. But print copy remains the primary source of advertising and subscription revenue for the majority of publications.

Charles Bittner, academic liaison for The Nation, believes print copies provide legitimacy to editorial publications, separating them from online sources that may not check facts or even employ editors: "I hate to look forward to a day when any blog is the same as The Nation, or any blog is the same as Harper's monthly." Bittner, like many news consumers, prefers to read his magazines in hand rather than online and regularly hears from subscribers who share that sentiment. But that's something rapid postage rate hikes will make more difficult.

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