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Going Postal on Rate Hikes for Independent Periodicals

The U.S. Postal Service is poised to reverse more than two centuries of free-press-supporting, independent-voice-enabling policy, and in the process imperil hundreds of magazines.
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It's been a crappy few years for independent publications and the progressive press. The slow collapse of the distribution arm of the Independent Press Association --the mission-driven nonprofit founded in 1996 to advocate for non-corporate magazines-- led to the untimely demise of at least one progressive stalwart (Clamor magazine), and put dozens more in financial free fall. (Full disclosure: my own magazine, Bitch, is among them.) And with a postal rate increase for periodicals set for July 15 --a hike that could mean up to a 30 percent increase in postal rates for non-corporate-owned publications -- an independent press-loving person could start feeling a little prone to conspiracy theories.

But let's back up before we get into that. Postal rates have always been the great equalizer of the printed media, designed to keep the press free and competitive. Whether your magazine was called Newsweek or Coin Collector Monthly, your periodical rates were the same. Your distributor might declare bankruptcy, your printer might decide to drop you, but your status with the trusty USPS was secure.

No more. Under the proposed rate structure for mailing periodicals, the biggest publications--your Times, your Rolling Stones, your Vanity Fairs--are granted the best prices thanks to their ability to produce better mailing efficiencies (bundling, sorting, transport); smaller publications that don't have the budget for such efficiences pay for the Postal Service's work on their behalf.

From a free-market standpoint, this isn't, on its face, unfair: since big mag publishers use fewer Postal Service resources, they get to pay less. But the USPS isn't supposed to be a competitive enterprise. It's a government body whose rate structure has until now been meant to facilitate and encourage the dissemination of information and ensure a thriving marketplace of ideas. As Robert McChesney of the organization Free Press points out at Reclaim the Media the USPS is poised to reverse more than two centuries of free-press-supporting, independent-voice-enabling policy, and in the process imperil hundreds of magazines.

Which is where the conspiracy-theory stuff comes in. The new rates were not only developed with no public or congressional input/oversight, they weren't even developed by the Postal Service itself. Rather, the plan was brewed up by an entity that happens to have a pretty hefty stake in maintaining its own primacy in the magazine realm: Time Warner publications, publisher of such checkout-counter heavies as People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, InStyle, and Sunset. The announcement was made only weeks ago, and the short notice hasn't allowed the small publications at risk time to do much more than mutter obscenities in the USPS's general direction.

As the largest magazine publisher in the U.S., Time Warner shouldn't need to look over its shoulder at the likes of a comparatively tiny operation like The Nation; nevertheless, the policy it proposed seems like a paranoid guarantee that it never has to. Many small magazines simply won't be able to afford to continue publishing if their mailing rates increase 30 percent; fewer new magazines will be able to launch without a sizable amount of start-up capital and/or corporate backing. And what that means is that we'll see a dwindling number of magazines devoted to independent, noncommercial discourse --whether that discourse is from the left or the right, about hunting or about pressing your own tofu.

Can the decision be reversed? Well, it's worth trying. Free Press is encouraging anyone who cares about preserving media democracy and independent voices to urge Congress to intervene, and the Postal Board of Governors to revamp the new policy. The site provides a handy-dandy pre-written letter for the slacktivists among us, as well as links to more information about what the new regulations mean for your independent media. So get there, and get writing.

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