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.

Ben Franklin would be horrified at what the Postal Service is doing to newspapers

Benjamin Franklin, publisher and postmaster general

As if local newspapers didn’t have enough to contend with, they are now being threatened by the Postal Service. According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, newspapers are simply not being delivered in some parts of the country because of the recent mail meltdown. And publishers are facing a rate increase of as much as 9% in 2022, cutting deeply into their already precarious bottom lines.

“These are little, tiny rural communities, and typically papers like mine are the only sources of information about that community,” Brett Wesner, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of 12 papers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, told Bogage. “Most don’t have digital coverage of any kind. Most don’t have radio stations. We are the source of community information, both in terms of covering community events but also the city council, the school board, the county commission.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that American newspapers were built on reliable postal service and affordable rates. As the Post notes, the first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin, who was himself a newspaper publisher. Paul Starr, in his sweeping history of journalism, “The Creation of the Media” (2004), wrote that newspapers were given a boost starting in Colonial times through postal subsidies. By contrast, European governments, more wary of the press, kept postal rates artificially high.

In his book “Democracy without Journalism?” (2019), Victor Pickard put it this way:

Because the postal system served a higher civic purpose as a news and information infrastructure upon which a self-governing populace depended, policymakers determined that the state would directly subsidize the dissemination of newspapers with low postal rates.

That policy, Pickard wrote, was supported by founders such as George Washington and James Madison and prevailed until the “market fundamentalists” of the Reagan era began to argue that the Postal Service should be run like a business and turn a profit. And, of course, that move was hypercharged under President Donald Trump, who appointed an unqualified (at best) postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who undermined postal operations in what may have been an attempt to suppress mail-in voting and help Trump win re-election.

So why not shift to digital delivery? That option is available to larger daily papers, especially as the steep decline of advertising takes away one of the last remaining reasons for having a print edition. The Salt Lake Tribune, our only nonprofit major metro, is moving from daily to weekly print in order to save money.

But the tiny newspapers, mostly weeklies, to which Brett Wesner refers most likely don’t have that option. Their communities may not have broadband, and the papers themselves may not even have websites. Print is vital for them to be able to serve the public. Unfortunately, it looks like one of Trump’s final legacies will be to make it that much harder for them to survive.

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Accountability in the post-newspaper age

Here is the video of Princeton University professor Paul Starr at last night’s program on “Public Accountability After the Age of Newspapers,” featuring Starr, Boston Globe editor Marty Baron and me. Update: Video of the entire program has been posted here.

The event was sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service and the Ford Hall Forum, and was held at Suffolk Law School. The moderator was law school professor Alasdair Roberts.

As you will see, one of Starr’s main themes was that, with the Internet having hollowed out the economic model for the newspaper business, government needs to step up with some type of subsidy — preferably an indirect subsidy created by tweaking the tax code, for instance. (Here is Starr’s recent congressional testimony on that subject.)

Before you start spluttering, Starr would not favor newspapers over other forms of media. And he pointed out that he’s not talking about anything new: Newspapers as we have come to know them got a huge assist in the earliest days of the republic through massive postal subsidies.

“Newspapers … have helped to create a self-aware urban public,” Starr said.

Baron disdained subsidies, saying, “I feel very strongly about our independence, and we have to maintain that.”

Instead, Baron suggested two governmental changes — a shift in the copyright law aimed at extracting money out of Google News and other aggregators, and an end to what he called the “antiquated” cross-ownership ban, which prevents media companies from owning a daily newspapers and a television or radio station in the same market.

Starr disagreed with Baron on copyright, noting that if linking without permission were made illegal (an extreme remedy that Baron did not actually suggest), the Web as we know it would soon cease to exist.

(Personally, I think the fair-use provision of copyright provides all the protection that newspapers need. If Globe executives want to opt out of Google, all they have to do is insert some code. They don’t for the simple reason that Google provides the Globe and other newspapers with a considerable amount of Web traffic.)

I talked about emerging alternative models at the local level, such as the New Haven Independent, CT News Junkie, Baristanet.com and the Batavian — projects that are too small to replicate the newspaper’s traditional mission in its entirety, but that have established themselves as vital news sources in a time of cutbacks.

Blogging takes a back seat

Please pardon the lack of blogging. I’m overcommitted this week, and, other than my students (of course!), my main priority is getting ready for tomorrow evening’s event with Princeton University professor Paul Starr and Boston Globe editor Marty Baron.

Hope to see you there.

Thinking about the post-newspaper era

Paul Starr
Paul Starr

Princeton University scholar Paul Starr, author of “The Creation of the Media” (2004) as well as a provocative essay in The New Republic earlier this year titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” will speak at Suffolk Law School next Thursday, Oct. 1.

Delivering responses to Starr’s remarks will be Boston Globe editor Marty Baron and me.

Sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service and the Ford Hall Forum, the event will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Suffolk University’s Moot Court Room, at 120 Tremont St.

Admission is free, but you do need to sign up in advance. You can simply e-mail an RSVP to Senka Huskic at shuskic {at} suffolk {dot} edu. (Change {at} and {dot} to create a normal-looking e-mail address.)

Hope to see you there.