This crisis which could have devastating effect on new media revolves around Americas very first and arguably most visionary and progressive media policy: postal rates for periodicals.
Because the Post Office is a monopoly, and because magazines must use it, the postal rates always have been skewed to make it cheaper for smaller publications to get launched and to survive. The whole idea has been to use the postal rates to keep publishing as competitive and wide open as possible. This bedrock principle was put in place by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. They considered it mandatory to create the press system, the Fourth Estate necessary for self-government.
It was postal policy that converted the free press clause in the First Amendment from an abstract principle into a living breathing reality for Americans. And it has served that role throughout our history.
The new rates, which go into effect on July 15, were developed with no public involvement or congressional oversight, and the increased costs could damage hundreds, even thousands, of smaller publications, possibly putting many out of business. This includes nearly every political journal in the nation. These are the magazines that often provide the most original journalism and analysis. These are the magazines that provide much of the content on Common Dreams. We desperately need them.
What the Post Office is planning to do now, in the dark of night, is implement a rate structure that gives the best prices to the biggest publishers, hence letting them lock in their market position and lessen the threat of any new competition. The new rates could make it almost impossible to launch a new magazine, unless it is spawned by a huge conglomerate.
The corruption and sleaziness of this process is difficult to exaggerate. As one lawyer who works for a large magazine publisher admits, “It takes a publishing company several hundred thousand dollars to even participate in these rate cases. Some large corporations spend millions to influence these rates.” Little guys, and the general public who depend upon these magazines, are not at the table when the deal is being made.
This process was conducted with such little publicity and pitched only at the dominant players that we only learned about it a few weeks ago and it is very late in the game. But there is something you can do. Please go to www.stoppostalratehikes.com and sign the letter to the Postal Board protesting the new rate system and demanding a congressional hearing before any radical changes are made. The deadline for comments is April 23.
I know many of you are connected to publications that go through the mail, or libraries and bookstores that pay for subscriptions to magazines and periodicals. If you fall in these categories, it is imperative you get everyone connected to your magazine or operation to go to www.stoppostalratehikes.com.
We do not have a moment to lose. If everyone who reads this piece responds at www.stoppostalratehikes.com, and then sends a link to it to their friends urging them to do the same, we can win. If there is one thing we have learned at Free Press over the past few years, it is that if enough people raise hell, we can force politicians to do the right thing. This is a time for serious hell-raising.
Robert W. McChesney is also the co-author, with John Nichols, of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New Press). And he is the founder of Free Press, www.freepress.net.