Trump’s postmaster general targets journalism with a devastating rate hike

Painting by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951). Uploaded (cc) 2020 by Halloween HJB.

As scholars from Paul Starr to Victor Pickard have observed, newspapers in the United States have benefited mightily from postal subsidies since the earliest days of the republic.

Starting in the Reagan era, though, the U.S. Postal Service has been run under the misguided notion that it should break even or turn a profit rather than be operated as a public service. As a result, postal rates for periodicals have been rising for more than a generation, putting additional pressure on newspaper and magazine publishers who are already straining under the economic challenges posed by technology, cultural shifts — and, now, the post-pandemic recovery.

The latest bad news comes in the form of a report from The Associated Press that rates on periodicals are scheduled to rise by more than 8% on Aug. 29. The AP story, by David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre, says the increase is “part of a broad plan pushed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to overhaul mail operations.”

DeJoy, you may recall, is the ethically challenged Trump appointee who slowed down mail service last year, thus imperiling vote-by-mail efforts in the midst of the pandemic. For some reason, he appears to have more job security than Vladimir Putin.

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Now, you might think that rising postal rates would simply push publishers to hasten their transition to digital. But it’s a simple matter of reality that print advertising continues to play an important role in keeping newspapers and magazines afloat. For instance, earlier this year, Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of start-up Provincetown Independent, explained that he offers a print edition alongside a robust website because otherwise it would be just too difficult to make money.

Northwestern University Professor Penelope Muse Abernathy tells the AP that the effect of higher postal rates could be devastating for small local news projects that are already struggling. “It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line, especially if you are an independent publisher who is operating at break even or in the low single digits of profitability,” she says. “And most are.”

Ironically, a section of the Postal Service’s website sings the glories of how subsidies helped foster robust journalism, quoting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The essay starts like this:

From the beginning of the American republic, the Founding Fathers recognized that the widespread dissemination of information was central to national unity. They realized that to succeed, a democratic government required an informed electorate, which in turn depended upon a healthy exchange of news, ideas, and opinions.

At a time when the idea of government funding for journalism is being debated in the public square, postal subsidies stand out as a particularly benign way to go about doing that. As with tax benefits for nonprofit news organizations, postal subsidies are indirect. That makes it difficult for the government to punish individual media outlets for tough coverage — as is happening right now in Western Pennsylvania, where the Republican-dominated state legislature has eliminated funding for public broadcasters even as one station has persisted in calling out the Republicans for touting the “big lie” about the 2020 election. (Republican officials deny there’s a connection.)

It’s long past time for Louis DeJoy to hit the bricks and for the post office to be reorganized as a public service. Foremost among those services should be helping to provide the public with reliable, affordable journalism.

In Provincetown, a startup weekly newspaper is challenging Gannett

Launching a community news outlet at a time when local news is under siege might seem like a foolhardy risk. But journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit are taking that risk — and, for some, it’s paying off.

Take, for example, The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. According to co-founder and editor Ed Miller, the Independent already has more than 100 advertisers and a full-time staff of 10, including three editors and three and a half reporters, as well as a number of freelancers. He and the other co-founder, publisher Teresa Parker, are aiming for break-even and a staff of 20 by year five.

“The fact is that the majority of these legacy small-town papers are actually doing perfectly well,” Miller said last week at an event at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism via Zoom. He added, though, that “they’re not making anybody rich.”

The Independent covers four towns — Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. The paper has both a print and a paywalled digital edition. Although a number of local news startups are digital-only, Miller said he’s convinced that print is necessary for a for-profit enterprise such as his, since it’s a more effective way to attract advertisers. (The Independent is a public-benefit corporation, which means, according to its About page, that it is “committed to prioritizing the social and environmental benefits of our corporate decision-making.”)

The formula has worked, he said, noting that the current edition comprises 32 pages, 27% of which are advertising.

One type of advertising he’s not getting are legal notices, a problem he blamed on town officials who don’t like the tough coverage the Independent is providing. Instead, legals continue to go to the Banner and another Gannett weekly, the Cape Codder, whose coverage area overlaps with the Independent in Eastham.

Miller began his career as a small-town newspaper owner in the town of Harvard in 1973, an experience that led him to co-write a 1978 book called “How to Produce a Small Newspaper.” He worked for four years for the Banner before deciding to launch his own venture, saying that GateHouse Media, which later acquired Gannett and took its name, “pretty much systematically stripped it of all its staff and other capacities.”

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As for the Independent, he said the paper now has paid print circulation of about 3,200 (subscriptions plus newsstand sales), with another 450 digital-only subscribers, most of whom live far from Cape Cod.

The paper’s revenues last year were about $640,000, with $217,000 coming from subscriptions and $242,000 from advertising. Nearly $70,000 came in the form of government assistance related to the pandemic, and another $74,000 was from donations and grants to the Independent’s nonprofit arm, which it uses to pay interns and cover the cost of in-depth reporting on issues like climate change, affordable housing, health care and LGBTQ issues.

Although not every local news startup is as successful as the Independent, there has been an upsurge in recent years of independently owned community outlets. Some are for-profit, some are nonprofit. Some are online-only, some have a print edition. Some were launched to challenge a chain-owned newspaper, some were founded in communities with no news outlet. Later this week, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers will release a study showing that the number of independents in the U.S. and Canada has risen by 50% over the past five years.

What all of these startups have in common is that, even with the challenges to local news posed by the likes of Craigslist, Facebook and Google, independents can succeed.

“We hear from people in various other places where their papers have really withered and they’ve heard about what we’re doing,” Miller said. “Every place is different. What we’re doing out here in Provincetown is geared to this place. People will need to find their own ways of making this work wherever they are.”

Correction. This post has been updated regarding the length of Miller’s tenure at the Provincetown Banner and the Independent’s total print circulation.