Postal rate hike hits labor press

By Andy Zipser, The Guild Reporter

Earlier this year, as sketchy details about a proposed postal increase began leaking out to the public, a sense of panic swept the offices of many small-circulation publishers. The basic formula had been designed by the industry’s biggest heavy-weight, Time Warner. The details were so complicated that the U.S. Postal Service would need several months to design the necessary software. The country’s small publishers would get hit like a ton of bricks.

For many labor periodicals already operating on a shoestring, the postal rate hike amounts to a gag on publication.

And so it came to pass.

For many labor periodicals already operating on a shoestring, the postal rate hike amounts to a gag on publication.

The July bill for mailing the Guild Reporter was 26.6% higher than June’s. Indeed, postage is now so expensive that mailing the paper costs more than printing it. Similar increases are threatening all publications without a substantial advertising base—including many union publications—with severe cutbacks in frequency or page count, and some may be eliminated altogether.

Although all publications are paying more for postage, those hit hardest have relatively small circulation but far-ranging distribution, which means they can’t take advantage of discounts offered to mass marketers, such as bundling by zip code or drop-shipping to regional mailing centers.

For example, CWA Local 1180 in New York City produces a bi-monthly tabloid, Communiqué, for approximately 15,500 city employees and retirees. Perhaps 60% of its distribution is within the city—but the other 40% is broadcast throughout the U.S., to all the places that retirees seek out. The bottom line? A 35% jump in postage.

“I expect that one of the questions we’ll have to grapple with is whether we can continue mailing to our retirees, since that’s where the bulk of the increased costs are,” said editor Esther Kaplan.

The International Musician, a 36-40 page magazine with circulation of about 100,000, produced by the American Federation of Musicians, was slapped with a 27% increase. Like the Guild Reporter, it too is mailed throughout the United States and Canada.

Publications with less than national distribution fared better, albeit still with double-digit increases. The Communicator, a glossy magazine of about 70,000 circulation produced by a New York-based AFT affiliate, the Public Employees Federation, estimates its increased cost at about 21%. For the Labor Paper, a tabloid with 80% of its circulation within Kenosha and Racine counties in southern Wisconsin, the increase was approximately 15%. For the Union Advocate, a tabloid circulated almost entirely in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 12.5%.

Generally speaking, the bigger the circulation the less of an increase, at least percentage-wise. USW@Work, a 36-page Steelworkers publication with more than a million circulation, took an 8.3% bump; Teamster magazine, with 1.7 million in circulation, reports an increase of approximately 7%. But even comparatively small increases on large volumes quickly add up. At the Teamsters, the increase will add up to a $100,000 annual bite just for the magazine, says union spokesman Per Bernstein, while the increased cost of all of its mail will be roughly tripled.

The St. Louis-South Illinois Labor Tribune, which has a much smaller circulation of 90,000 but which comes out weekly, is looking at $80,000 a year in higher postal costs, forcing an increase in subscription rates—and the hope that the higher rates won’t be offset by non-renewals. “This rate increase is absolutely ludicrous, to put all the weight on the little guys,” complains publisher Ed Finkelstein.

With many unions having drastically pared their publication frequency even before the increase, some were not clear even in late August just how much of a hit they would have to absorb. The CWA News, for example, in recent years has gone from monthly to seven-times-a-year publication—and because it mailed its July-August issue before the increase kicked in, won’t get the bad news until its September issue goes out. At other unions, the news simply hasn’t had time to percolate through the bureaucracy, with several editors and communications directors reporting that they know they got slammed, but not by how much.

The bigger question is how various publications are responding to a sometimes crippling cost. Many say they are in a wait-and-see mode, looking for more data—and leadership reaction—before they start formulating strategies. “I don’t know that we’re doing anything differently because of it,” said Jim Spellane, communications director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, referring to a 20% increase. Still, he added, “an increase of that magnitude could really make a difference.”

Antoinette Follett, managing editor of the International Musician, echoed a widespread resignation when she observed, “The post office tells you, ‘this is the price,’ and where else are you going to go?” But AFM comptroller Lorraine Bartlett offered a sobering contrast. “There’s a possibility we may be looking at some point at going to every other month,” down from the current monthly production cycle, she said.

Others are looking to switch from periodical mailing permits to non-profit ones—but that can require a drastic format change. To get a substantial savings on a non-profit mailing permit, publications must be folded no larger than the maximum letter size, which is 11.5” x 6.125”. (Larger pieces can be mailed at the non-profit rate for flats, but that’s more expensive than even the higher periodical rate.) Because most existing publications can’t be folded that small due to mechanical limitations (tabloid pages are too big, magazines have too many pages, many presses can’t make the desired folds), unions and district councils trying to go this route have to do a complete design overhaul.

But that’s just what the Metro Detroit Labor News, which used to be a tabloid, is doing every other issue: converting to an 8” x 12” page, which it folds in half and mails at the non-profit rate. (Its other four issues each year are being printed as before and mailed at the higher periodical rate.) The American Federation of Government Employees likewise has chopped its publication size in half, for the same reason, and it seems almost certain others will follow suit—especially as the enormity of the price increase sinks in.

article originally published at http://www.newsguild.org/gr/index.php?ID=4406.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey