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The cost of getting a magazine to your mailbox is going up next week. Just how much depends on which magazine. Small publications say they're shouldering more than their share of the rate hike. They contend the biggest titles are getting a break from the U.S. Postal Service, and they've convinced Congress to hold hearings on the matter.
From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: The American Poetry Review has four full-time employees in its office in Philadelphia. The magazine's 11,000 subscribers are scattered all over the country. Editor David Bonanno says that on July 15th the cost of mailing his magazine to those readers is going up drastically.
Mr. DAVID BONANNO (Editor, The American Poetry Review): Imagine if the first-class rates had gone up 20 percent. I mean, Congress wouldn't have allowed that. You know, it's not good. It's not good.
ROSE: The American Poetry Review isn't the only magazine bracing for a major rate hike. Postage rates for all periodicals are set to rise this month by about 13 percent on average. For some titles, though, the rates will be going up even more.
Ms. TERESA STACK (President, The Nation): It's a very disproportionate hit to the smaller guys.
ROSE: Teresa Stack is president of the liberal weekly The Nation. She co-wrote an op-ed piece about the rate hike for the Los Angeles Times with Jack Fowler, the publisher of the National Review, a conservative opinion journal. Ordinarily, Stack and Fowler don't agree on anything. But with each magazine facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new mailing costs, Fowler says they managed to find common ground.
Mr. JACK FOWLER (Publisher, National Review): For a small magazine, $100,000 is a major amount of money. Opinion journals, because they are opinion journals, are often kryptonite to potential advertisers. Therefore, we are much more dependent on lower postal rates than the big boys.
ROSE: But the postal service says it can't afford the old rate system anymore. John Waller works for the Postal Regulatory Commission, the body in charge of setting rates. He says the cost the Postal Service pays to handle periodicals is rising fast, in part because so many have to be sorted individually.
Mr. JOHN WALLER (Director, Postal Regulatory Commission): Some pieces will go through machines, some pieces won't and need to be handled by hand. That's much more expensive.
ROSE: Waller says the new rate system includes a discount for mailers who print labels a computer can read. There are also incentives for publishers who agree to ship their titles along with other magazines and for dropping magazines closer to their final destinations; in short, for doing more of what the Postal Service does now.
Mr. WALLER: It costs a little, but if they get a significant reduction in rates from the Postal Service, they come out a winner because their overall costs have gone down.
ROSE: But Teresa Stack of The Nation says she won't be saving money anytime soon. Stack says she's putting out a weekly magazine and she can't afford to wait for other publishers.
Ms. STACK: We need to be there every week at the same time. And, you know, that's the way the postal system was set up in the past. What we're talking about is them getting out of certain parts of the business that were, you know, a public service for over 200 years.
ROSE: The Postal Service was originally designed to promote democracy. That's according to Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign and founder of the activist group Free Press. McChesney says the founding fathers wanted to subsidize the delivery of newspapers and periodicals.
Professor ROBERT MCCHESNEY (Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois-Champaign): And the principle that it's good to have more print media, that self-government requires a diverse and vibrant press. And the genius of the postal subsidy then, as now, is that it doesn't favor a particular viewpoint. It doesn't allow the government to pick which magazine gets it and which doesn't.
ROSE: McChesney says that policy still makes sense in a digital age because print magazines and opinion journals create much of the content that's disseminated and discussed on the Internet. But that periodical subsidy is now facing an increasingly mechanized Postal Service, one that's been mandated by Congress to break even on every class of mail it delivers. The PRC's John Waller says people often have to be pushed to change.
Mr. WALLER: They're not going to do it unless there are some lower rates at the other end when they do do it.
ROSE: Waller says the PRC tried to minimize the impact on small publishers. But critic Robert McChesney thinks they did a lousy job. He says the biggest publishers, the ones that can afford to print computerized labels and ship in larger bundles, will only see rate hikes in the single digits. And he contends the new rates were largely designed by Time Warner.
Mr. MCCHESNEY: It's your classic sort of corrupt, secretive process in the sense that it's almost entirely dominated by the largest players who can afford the lawyers and the experts to write up the recommendations and proposals and hawk the thing day in and day out.
ROSE: It's a charge the PRC and Time Warner deny. They say the process was entirely legal and open to the public. Jim O'Brien is vice president of distribution for Time Incorporated, which publishes Time magazine, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly, among other titles. He says Time is a more efficient mailer than smaller publishers so it shouldn't be covering their costs.
Mr. JIM O'BRIEN (Vice President, Distribution and Postal Affairs, Time Incorporated): We are, in effect, subsidizing other publishers. Should we be forced to charge higher rates to our subscribers to continue this subsidy, or should we put in a rate structure that gives them the incentive to change their mailing behavior and become more efficient?
ROSE: However, the impact on small publishers has caught the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Representative Danny K. Davis of Illinois chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service.
Representative DANNY DAVIS (Democrat, Illinois): I'm greatly concerned about it because our Postal Service and postal system has meant more than just the conveyance of mail. It's been a part of the spreading of democracy.
ROSE: Davis says he'll hold a hearing on the rate hike. But that may not happen until October, months after the new rates take effect. In the meantime, Teresa Stack of The Nation says her magazine will do its best to absorb the increased costs. She predicts some publications will have to cut back on pages or worse.
Ms. STACK: There will be magazines that go out of business because of this and there will be cuts in content. How that takes place, how that affects various titles is to be determined, but I think it's absolutely going to happen.
ROSE: Stack is trying to delay the inevitable. She and 20 other small publishers have sent a letter to the chairman of the Postal Board of Governors. She says magazines were promised software that would calculate the new rates but haven't gotten it yet. The Postal Service says they won't until July 15th.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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