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The circle of print: community newspapers at risk as postal offices close

While newspapers continue their struggle to maintain relevance in a digital landscape, post office closings may bring more trouble for the print news industry. The U.S. Postal Service has already closed 3,652 small post offices. Plans to close more small post offices and possibly 252 out of 487 regional mail processing facilities in May have left many in the newspaper business wondering what will become of newspapers distributed through the mail.

Max Heath, the chairman of the National Newspaper Association’s (NNA) Postal Committee, said that while not all the effects of these changes will be negatives for the newspaper industry, both newspapers and the Postal Service will suffer negative repercussions. “The [Postal Service] system is broken already and what they’re planning to do, it’s going to be really broke,” he said. The main concerns as post offices across the country close, is that it will be harder to get papers to subscribers, which could cause a loss of subscriptions, revenue and possible ad revenue.

According to Heath, the NNA’s member base didn’t really object to the first 3,652 closings because those post offices were very tiny. But when the Postal Service announced its plans to close more offices in sizeable communities, some newspapers started to get scared. “It was, ok, who are they going to come for next?” he said.

Heath said these changes will mostly affect community newspapers with a circulation of less than 50,000. They could affect some larger papers, but that would only be in extremely rare cases, he noted. For the most part, he said, larger metropolitan papers don’t know much about mail. “It’s a small paper issue,” he said.

While the individual post office closings will certainly cause complications with community newspaper delivery, Heath said the NNA’s member base is more concerned about the closing of the regional mail processing facilities.  With processing facility closures, more mail comes to the facilities that are still open. This means that it could take longer to get the mail to the actual post offices that deliver it, and that it could be much more likely for mail to end up in the wrong place. “Plant closings will be the beginning of the end of the Postal Service,” he said.

Heath and other members of the NNA’s Postal Committee have been attending regular hearings conducted by the US Postal Regulatory Commission about these changes to the Postal Service. While the hearings occur at inconvenient times for those working at newspapers, he and his colleagues have been able to represent the newspapers and communities effectively. “We have been fortunate in many cases,” he said. For example, U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission chairman Ruth Goldway feels strongly about the freedom of the press, and is open to the Postal Committee’s protection of the First Amendment. When it comes to the hearings, “We have clout beyond our revenue,” he said.

According to Heath, there are positives that could come out of these changes. Closing the smaller post offices will save some newspapers money because they will have to deliver to fewer offices. Some of the very tiny communities consist of little more than a post office and a church, so closing those offices isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he noted.

But the upsides will be subtle in comparison to the potential negatives, Heath said. “There’s a real threat to the mailing industry, to the people who want to use the mail and to the commerce of this country.”

–Julia Russell

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