Government’s new postal rates help destroy indy media

Most people didn’t notice on May 14 when postage for a first class stamp went up 2 cents that the US postal service also eliminated international surface rate mail and made other dramatic changes to mail rules and rates that negatively effect the small press. These changes are a huge problem for Slingshot’s free newspaper distribution and many other small publishers, non-profits and community service groups.

Small Press Rates Increase Disproportionately

The main change on May 14 was a very strange, uneven rate increase on mailing publications. When the US Postal Rate Commission was initially considering raising postage on May 14, the US postal service had suggested a 12 percent across the board increase of postal rates. At the last minute, the Postal Rate Commission instead approved a very complex and confusing plan proposed by Time Warner — one of the largest publishers in the world — which provided discounts for huge mailers, while raising rates for the small press by 20 and in some cases 30 percent. Instead of postage rates being based mostly on the number of pieces in a mailing and their weight, postage is now based on the level of automation a mailer is able to provide for its mail. Huge mailers can fully comply, while small presses lack the resources to fully automate.

The rules were so technical and confusing that no one noticed what was happening until it was too late — the “public” only had 8 days to comment — and how many members of the “public” other than corporate lobbyists representing big publishers notice what the Postal Rate Commission is doing, anyway?

Since May, there has been an on-line petition and other efforts to try to convince the postal service to go back to a more level playing field. (Check out freepress.net to sign.) The rate increase is just another corporate welfare measure to favor wealthy publishers and push out small publications.

As part of the rate increase, the postal service changed the rules that define whether a particular mail piece is a letter, a flat or a package to make them extremely confusing and to categorize lots of stuff as expensive packages that used to be cheap letters. The post office gave us a Kafka-esque flyer to help us figure out which category each particular mail piece is now in — you have to see this thing to believe it. You have to look at shape, thickness, and flexibility by following sort of a flow chart and putting your mail through little slots and against grids.

The main justification for the complex rules is that mail that fits the guidelines can be handled by robots — it is “automation compatible” and “machineable” — and it is thus cheaper for the postal service, so the postage should be cheaper. This sounds good until you realize that it means that you are now serving a computer and a robot, rather than the robot serving you. I can imagine Hal talking to my package of Slingshots:

Slingshot: Hello, HAL do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave, I read you.

Slingshot: Open the postbox doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Slingshot is just coming to terms with how these changes will complicate our mailing operations. If you’re a big commercial mail house, all the new rules and the need to access fancy machines and computers may not be such a problem, but as an all-volunteer rag tag operation, the changes may make it impossible for us to mail out this current issue that you hold in your hand for anything resembling a reasonable price. As we go to press, we honestly don’t know if we’ve figured out the rules right or whether our mailing will be rejected when we bring it in to the post office. The written rules are more complex than tax law (although we have been trying to read and figure them out . . .).

We’ve been mailing Slingshot ourselves — folding it and addressing it by hand as a big group sitting around on a Sunday afternoon — for almost 20 years. It is depressing to realize that we may no longer be able to use the US postal service — Benjamin Franklin’s dream of a public post — to distribute our publication because computers, and not people, are now in charge.

Surface Rate Eliminated

Prior to May 14, we sent 1 pound packages of the newspaper for free to a dozen or so countries via surface rate postage, i.e. ships. It was slow but affordable. The vast bulk of the free papers went to Canada (probably by truck or train, not ship). Under the new postal service rules, all international mail now must go via air. A single pound of newspapers to England, for example, now costs $10.40 — for 8 copies! It used to be $4 or so via surface mail.

We’re looking at other options but the most likely result is that we will stop sending multiple copies overseas. We mail single copies to about 25 countries and the price for mailing a single copy is still okay. The biggest problem is for Canada, where we ship many packages of papers for free distro — without surface rate, we’re in danger of losing our entire Canadian readership. If anyone has suggestions, let us know.

In response to the elimination of surface rate, groups including the National Peace Corps Association launched a petition that has been signed by over 4,000 people asking the postal service to restore surface rate postage. Surface rate was frequently used by non-profits and development groups trying to send books overseas. If you want to sign the on-line petition, check out www.petitiononline.com/zikomo/petition.html