Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SHARP: Postal plan returned to sender

By JEANNY SHARP, Herald Editor and Publisher | 3/22/2013

Congress dealt the U.S. Postal Service a blow this week when it passed legislation requiring six-day delivery of first-class mail despite the postal service’s board’s decision to discontinue Saturday delivery beginning in August.

The people, organizations and businesses — including newspapers like ours — that are dependent on the postal service for Saturday delivery breathed a collective sigh of relief with the decision (though it undoubtedly is only a short-term reprieve). The financially troubled organization had hoped to save $2 billion annually by switching to five-day per week delivery. Those hopes were dashed with this week’s Senate decision.

Congress dealt the U.S. Postal Service a blow this week when it passed legislation requiring six-day delivery of first-class mail despite the postal service’s board’s decision to discontinue Saturday delivery beginning in August.

The people, organizations and businesses — including newspapers like ours — that are dependent on the postal service for Saturday delivery breathed a collective sigh of relief with the decision (though it undoubtedly is only a short-term reprieve). The financially troubled organization had hoped to save $2 billion annually by switching to five-day per week delivery. Those hopes were dashed with this week’s Senate decision.

The postal service lost $16 billion in 2012, and certainly will have to make more changes to keep it more nimble and out-of-debt. It would make more sense to drop Monday mail delivery — a day post office employees frequently have off for national holidays — and lessen the impact on our readers. While we have been exploring other options for Saturday postal delivery, we are happy to kick the proverbial can and this dilemma a little further down the road for now.

Social media could unknowingly be helping out its snail mail brethren by charging to send messages to people the users aren’t “friends” with. Facebook — the scourge of the postal service — now is charging $1 for individuals to send a message via Facebook to people they don’t know. That $1 fee is more than twice as much as the postal service charges for first-class mail — currently 46 cents per piece. Perhaps Facebook’s initiative could drive some people back to traditional mail delivery, but the ease of finding people on Facebook, which doesn’t bother itself with privacy rules likes its legacy postal service comrade, makes it difficult to believe it will become a reality. Free rides never last, and Facebook is bringing that message home to many.

Facebook’s experiment, which was supposed to be only for a small group of users, was developed to discourage spammers from filling users’ Facebook message boxes with unwanted messages. For non-spammers who just want to send a simple message, however, the move could hurt their chances of reaching someone who might otherwise be unreachable because of the near extinction of telephone books and other traditional directory services.

Facebook also is experimenting with allowing users to send messages to all of their friends — just like an advertiser would — for $7. All that unwanted content might overload users with full message boxes and ultimately get treated like traditional, physical junk mail that goes right into the trash bin. Perhaps the ones who ought to pay a fee are those who want to avoid the unwanted mail.

This new economic strategy for Facebook was reported to include a $100 charge to send a message to other non-friends, such as Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg. Some people would pay that price to get a message to precisely the person they want, though there still is no guarantee the message actually would be read by the intended recipient. Those kinds of charges almost make the postal service’s relatively democratic system of charging the same amount to reach anyone — regardless of their address in the continental United States — a bargain.

Just imagine if the postal service charged higher rates to mail letters to people who lived in rural areas because it cost more to deliver to those households. It might not be popular, but could be part of the beleaguered organization’s new business model.

While the postal service adapts to its new realities and relevance in the marketplace, it is important to remember that reduced relevance doesn’t mean no relevance. The service is very important and, at least for the time being, can’t be beat by alternative means — even at double the price.

Jeanny Sharp is the Herald’s editor and publisher. Email her at jsharp@ottawaherald.com

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