Postal commission hears service cut will hurt rural areas
Experts recently told postal regulatory commission ending Saturday mail will harm small town America.
Just a short time ago the leadership of the United States Postal Service said that it may decide to cut Saturday delivery of mail to homes and businesses in an effort to fortify sagging revenues.
However, in front of a hearing of the Postal Regulatory Commission earlier this week witnesses said that the Postal Service has failed to take into account the effect of the loss of that service mail delivery upon small town America, and has overlooked new the competition it will spur from newspaper carrier forces if it drops Saturdays.
The Commission is hearing testimony on the Postal Service's proposal to repeal a law requiring six-day mail delivery. Postmaster General John Potter has said that if Congress relaxes the constraint, USPS will drop Saturday mail delivery in 2011. The PRC will issue its recommendation in October.
The change could affect Sun Advocate subscribers who are in a two day mail delivery cycle from Price, placing the delivery of their papers to at least the next Monday.
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, testified that rural Americans are more heavily dependent upon the mail than their urban cousins.
"Reducing the quality of postal service will reduce the quality of life in rural America, making it a less attractive place to live. The resulting out-migration, and suppression of in-migration, will contribute to population loss and stagnation in rural counties and add to suburban sprawl that drains other public resources," Cross said.
National Newspaper Association postal expert Max Heath affirmed Cross's viewpoint. He challenged comments that Postal Service witness Sam Pulcrano made recently during PRC hearings about rural citizens. Heath is NNA's Postal Committee chairman, and frequent expert witness before the PRC. He has testified in four proceedings in the past decade.
"It is regrettable that policymakers in the nation's capital do not take the time to visit smaller towns, " he said. "If the Postal Service had conducted such an investigation, its officials would have quickly learned that sentiments like Mr. Pulcrano's, (as) stated on the witness stand, that rural America chooses to have poorer and lesser services are highly offensive and objectionable."
The loss of Saturday mail will deeply affect many newspapers that count on USPS for delivery over the weekend, Heath testified. A particular loss will be reporting on high school sports.
"Publishers are rightly concerned about the reporting of local sports. That may seem like a parochial fret to someone in Washington, DC, but anyone who has roots in a small town can attest that the high school football and basketball teams form the nucleus of community gatherings. If the Postal Service's mission is still to bind the nation together, it must use the bindings that the community chooses, not ones selected by Washington. High school sports help bind small towns together -- even more than small post offices, in my humble opinion," Heath said. He noted that the news loss would reach far beyond sports coverage, however, and would affect local elections and politics, zoning decisions, school news, the community groups, the churches, economic development, taxes, crime, highway crashes, honor rolls, births and deaths, public notices, yard sales and a host of other news bites that make newspapers critical.
Cross pointed out that rural dwellers rely upon the printed newspaper, rather than the Internet.
"The latest data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, gathered in December 2009, show that while the percentage of rural Americans using the Internet has come close to the overall percentage, they are likely to get less from it, because they lack high-speed broadband and make less use of interactive features," he said. Rural America's access to broadband service at home was only 47 percent, compared to 61 percent for urban America.
Newspaper publishers need Saturday delivery because readers and advertisers want and need it, Heath told the Commission. If USPS will not deliver, publishers will be forced to create private delivery services, which will compete with the Postal Service for mail volume. That trend would reverse one of the Postal Service's few positive growth areas -- within county newspapers.
"Within County newspaper mail is the only product in market dominant mail that has seen growth in the past few years, having grown 12.8 percent in pieces in FY 2008, then 3.4 percent in FY 2009. So far in 2010, pieces have grown 2.6 percent for the first six months, with the second quarter showing acceleration to 3.6 percent, he said.
NNA President Cheryl Kaechele, publisher of the Allegan County (Mich.) News, expressed her appreciation for the witnesses' testimony, and reiterated NNA's commitment to preserving affordable and timely mail service.
"Our experts are sharing wisdom that the Postal Service needs to hear," she said. "Reducing service in this economy -- even as USPS tries to impose a double digit rate increase upon local newspapers -- is a recipe for business failure. NNA believes the Postal Service must continue to seek cost controls that do not cut into the muscle of its core franchise. We hope the Commission will agree."