EDITORIAL: Can the Postal Service survive?

THE CEO OF A HUGE technology firm once ridiculed consumer concerns that email might offer less security for private communications than first class mail. He asked his audience something to the effect: So you think it’s safer than email if you write down your personal thoughts, stick them between two pieces of paper, lick some glue and then give it all to the government for three days?

He got a big laugh. But the humor doesn’t play so well today, as hackers, cyber-scammers and online creeps of all kinds mount ever more sophisticated attacks on our wallets and identities. When you add in the ramped up capacity of government to monitor our digital connections, the Postal Service begins to looks more reliable and private than ever. So why’s the U.S.P.S. on the brink of bankruptcy?

About half of all the people who buy The Columbia Paper each week are subscribers through the U.S. Mail. Subscribers pay less per copy than people who buy the paper at the newsstand. But in the periodical publishing business, subscribers are more valuable than you folks who purchase a copy each week. That’s because we can assure advertisers that a newspaper with their ads in it will reach all our subscribers every week. (We don’t tell anybody who you are, just how many of you we have.) So the Postal Service not only provides an essential service, it adds value to this newspaper. But we do very little for the Postal Service bottom line.

Email and other digital services have led to huge reductions in first class mail, leaving the Postal Service deeper in debt than ever before. An even bigger problem arises from an unusual funding requirement Congress has placed on U.S.P.S. pension obligations. In response, the Postal Service proposed – but recently postponed — cutting costs by ending Saturday deliveries and closing a whole lot of post offices, including two that serve Columbia County, Brainard and Malden Bridge. Will that help?

Despite the jokes, the U.S. Postal Service isn’t exactly “the government.” Back in the 1970s Congress made it an independent agency no longer subsidized by tax dollars. But its independence is fictional, because the Postal Service lacks the authority to make the big decisions that might sustain fundamental services. In short, it can’t compete because Congress won’t allow it.

We deliver The Columbia Paper to every post office in the county, but we depend on postal workers to deliver the papers to individual mailboxes each week, something we can’t afford to do. As it is, there are over 30 separate post offices in this county of 63,000 people. There have to be cheaper, more efficient ways to provide most of the extraordinary services the U.S.P.S. provides six days a week, but making the system more rational sets of firestorms of protests and lobbying.

Let’s consider a real-life example. The Brainard Post Office has been very helpful to us in the past, and we would hate to see it or any other small facility shuttered without a guarantee of continuing service to the community. But our protective attitude about Brainard makes it clear why members of Congress block efforts by the Postal Service to close small, rural post offices: it’s what we constituents want them to do, even at a time when clinging to old loyalties threatens to destroy the whole postal system.

If Congress isn’t ready to surrender its authority over the Post Office closures, what’s needed is a compromise that buys enough time to see whether the postal service can adapt. Think of it as a test of that old call for government to operate “more like a business.” Congress should give the Postal Service the authority to set its own rates without interference from above.

Would that make it more expensive to mail a letter or a newspaper in Columbia County than in New York City? It might. Or it might lead to innovative practices that attract customers and make the U.S.P.S. more competitive.

The Columbia Paper as well as hundreds of small newspapers like ours around the country probably couldn’t survive in our present form without universal delivery by the Postal Service. So maybe we should accept that local news on paper is a medium on its deathbed. I don’t believe that, but wherever you stand on the future of newspapers, unless Congress gives the U.S.P.S. the freedom to make more rational business decisions, we’ll never know whether small newspapers face a natural death or federal lawmakers are about to kill it.

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