Mail & magazines: Death in the digital era

In 2007, The Boston Globe published an editorial exposing the impact of United States Postal Service (USPS) rate increases on small magazines. While rate increases are bad news for any publisher, the Globe emphasized the big vs. small business tension that really lay under the increases; Time Warner, publisher of over 100 magazines including Time and People, created the rate increase plan that threatened to put small publishers out of business.

In early 2014, the USPS revealed they’d be raising rates again; the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) approved a two-year 6-percent service rate increase for all bulk mail, periodicals and packages. This came with a three cent increase in first-class mail postage as well–the largest rate increase in 11 years, a 4.3 percent jump regulators allowed on top of the customary 1.7 percent adjustment for inflation.

But while that small jump on letter postage won’t necessarily stop people from mailing a letter, the added mailing costs for magazines may lead to increased subscriptions prices and lower subscription rates. For large-scale publishers like Hearst, Condé Nast and Time Warner, this shouldn’t prove entirely debilitating, but for smaller and independent publishers, those increases could be their downfall.

And this is a bigger issue than the downfall of printed publications in the media world–it can affect the circulation of information, alternative viewpoints, and fuel for public debate.

“Price protection has also been crucial for small magazines, helping them to add politically and socially diverse voices to the public arena,” the Globe wrote in 2007. “Without income these publications can’t survive, and the public loses out when those voices are silenced.”

Though the recent rate increases are only active for two years, it’s hard to say they won’t be back soon after they’re discontinued. In January the Newspaper Association of America, the MPA – Association of Magazine Publishers, and the Direct Marketing Association, a marketing industry trade group, filed an appeal to reverse the rates, while the USPS filed one to make them permanent.The PRC denied the USPS appeal, saying they’ll only allow the USPS to charge increased rates for as long as it takes to recover from the financial recession damage, but the rates will stand, as planned, until 2016.

The good news is, the Internet and blogosphere makes the overhead publishing costs virtually nonexistent, so the public debate can continue. However, for independent magazines who want to pay its editors and writers to create quality content, the Internet doesn’t provide the financial support that subscriptions and print ads once did.

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