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Idea rich, postage poor

May 28, 2007|Teresa Stack and Jack Fowler | TERESA STACK is president of the Nation. JACK FOWLER is publisher of the National Review.

THE COST OF getting magazines into your mailbox will shoot up July 15. How much? It depends.

Magazine publishers are facing a radical postage rate restructuring that favors those with large circulations and transfers costs to small- and mid-circulation publications.

Past increases to periodical postage were applied fairly equally across all publications. But this time, things are drastically different -- and potentially damaging to the diversity of voices that our founders strove to foster when they created the national postal system.

Our respective magazines -- the Nation and the National Review -- sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum and disagree on nearly every issue. But we concur on this: These proposed postal rate hikes are deeply unfair.

It is not simply that we want to avoid a massive increase in our mailing costs, though that is a factor. More important to us is that we believe in a vibrant marketplace of ideas (where we each think our ideas will prevail). We are not afraid of intellectual competition; we welcome it.

For this latest round of rate hikes, the U.S. Postal Service proposed a 12% increase that would have affected magazines more or less equitably. Then, in an unprecedented move, that plan was rejected by the Postal Regulatory Commission, the body responsible for setting rates. Instead, it approved a complicated pricing system based on a proposal by Time Warner Inc., the largest magazine publisher in the country. Rather than base rates on total weight and total number of pieces mailed, the new, complex formula is full of incentives that take into account packaging, shape, distance traveled and more.

It adds up to this: discounts for some periodicals; as far as we can see, mostly the huge-circulation titles associated with firms like Time Warner. At smaller magazines like ours, rates will go up 15% to 25%. Research by McGraw-Hill Cos. concludes that the rate increases for some small-circulation publications could hit 30%.

Time Warner and the Postal Regulatory Commission say this scheme rewards efficiency. But the rates appear to have been adopted with little research into their effect on publishers and with no meaningful public input.

How will small magazines that operate on the economic margins -- yet have an outsized effect on public discourse -- accommodate $500,000 (in the case of the Nation and the National Review) in additional postage expense? Will we be forced to cut back on reporting, raise our prices, reduce our staffs or our number of pages to stay afloat? For some titles, the change may prove fatal. It certainly will make it more difficult to start a new magazine, and publishing will be less competitive as a result.

Time Warner and the postal commission seem to have little understanding of the crucial role the Postal Service has played in establishing an open marketplace of ideas. It has always been a central policy of the Postal Service to use its pricing mechanism to encourage smaller publications and competition.

Since the time of James Madison and the founders in the 1790s, it has been understood that low rates for small publications make it possible to have the rich, open and diverse media that a self-governing people require. This is what is at stake today. And because so much of the material online originates in print magazines, these postal rates could have the unintended effect of shrinking the digital marketplace of ideas as well.

We urge the relevant congressional committees to hold a hearing to investigate this coming crisis before it is too late. The last 215 years of postal policy were instrumental in the creation of the extraordinary free press we have in the U.S. today. We should not begin to overturn this magnificent tradition.

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