Dead Letters

By Bill Coffin

The U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday that come August, it will cut back Saturday mail deliveries in a bid to save itself some $2 billion a year. The news drew a fairly huge amount of feedback ranging from howls of indignation to a collective shrug of indifference. For those of us in the publishing world, though, especially those responsible for any kind of weekly publication, the USPS pullback on deliveries imposes some pretty big changes not just on when we deliver our print content, but also how we create it. Weekly deadlines for content that delivers over the weekend have to be adjusted. Weekend editions bundled with Saturday deliveries? Guess they need to ship to the printer one day earlier and come with the Friday or Sunday editions.

POSTMANBut does any of this really matter? It depends on who you ask. For a lot of people, the Postal Service is simply a victim of changing times; as use of electronic media and e-mail has increased, the need for hard copy message delivery has surely gone down. But that is a red herring. The real culprit, of course, is the convergence of the Great Recession and the Congressional requirement in 2006 that the USPS—which has always been a self-sustaining operation—pre-fund its pre-retirees’ health benefits. Though the USPS has owed the federal government for past loan money, it had operated as a for-profit operation that, all things considered, was the envy of the modern world. What other national mail service could get a letter an equivalent distance of Key West to Anchorage for less than the price of a cup of coffee? (And bad coffee at that!) What other national mail service handled so many pieces of mail (nearly 100 billion a year before the economy crashed)? And what other national mail service covered its costs in such an efficient and entrepreneurial fashion? No others. None. Not one.

Alas, that hardly seems to matter now. Congress should probably be thanked for forcing the USPS to address up front its ballooning retiree costs—something the rest of society is not doing very well at the moment—but the way in which Congress did it was reckless. It required the USPS to pre-fund for the next 75 years, which no other federal agency or service has yet been required to do.

The Magazine Publishers of America also seem to think things have been handled recklessly. In its official statement about all of this, the group expressed dismay over the Postal Service’s unilateral decision to change its delivery frequency, though it did show some gratitude that the change was not immediate, and that publishers have half a year to make whatever adjustments they need to make.

One such adjustment might be for all weeklies to seriously reconsider their frequencies. The newsweekly in particular has been under serious pressure in recent years due a growing mismatch between the timeliness of their print content and the immediacy of web content. While there have been a few brands that have weathered the storm fairly well (The Economist comes to mind), many others have not, and frankly, with good cause. The news weekly serves an increasingly obsolete role in our modern media environment, favored most by those who cling to the love of print for print’s sake. Any weekly is now at best a recap publication, an aggregation of itself because it cannot hope to be more relevant than that. Those that co-mail become even more out of date by the time they arrive at their subscribers, a time capsule of already half-forgotten events. Better to forget the weekly model altogether and if one must publish in print, do so on a monthly basis. Keep the same total monthly page count and use that time to cover fewer stories with greater depth and context. Publishing less frequently allows content to be developed so it is more evergreen. And it won’t matter what day of the week it arrives on, making the USPS delivery schedule less of a consideration.

Easy for you to say, Bill! You run a monthly, last time anybody who reads National Underwriter Life & Health checked. Indeed, I do. But that once had been a weekly a few short years ago. Financial duress forced the book to go to bi-weekly, an ungainly and counterproductive frequency if ever there was one. When I took over and redesigned the book, I took it monthly because I knew we could still aggregate our more enduring daily news for the news hounds in the audience, but I could use the rest of the book to better develop deep features and columns that would turn my editors into personal brands. It helped that we did not have any advertisers with more than a 12x frequency, so the transition was a very smooth one. And once freed from a more hectic schedule, our entire team turned out a book that looked better, read better and sold better. We had an uptick in print sales following the redesign that led to our overshooting our print ad budget by several points that year.

Even if a frequency change isn’t in your appetite, those who feel blindsided by the postal delivery change deserve little sympathy. Even weeklies that are doing great guns with their readers and with their advertisers must realize that for any and all media, we now live in what risk management guru Nassim Taleb would call “Extremistan.” Our business models are subject to low-frequency, high-impact changes that are not necessarily foreseeable or preventable. Who among us has not faced a wrenching shift to their operations in the last five years? Who doesn’t expect to see another one within the next five? The USPS pulling back Saturday deliveries is, in the grand scheme of things, the least of any publication’s concerns these days. But it is a stark reminder that however we publish, whatever we publish, is subject to change at the drop of a hat. It is up to us to build content that remains compelling despite its packaging or delivery. To develop subject matter expertise and viewpoints in such demand that they remain viable no matter how and where we distribute them. We must remains flexible and open to adaptation. Otherwise, we will all end up in the same dead letter office that will eventually be filled with all those Saturday editions of yesteryear.

Photo of Bill Coffin
Bill Coffin

Bill Coffin has covered the risk and insurance industries for nearly 20 years. Prior to his role as the Life and Health Group Editor in Chief for Summit Business Media, he was the editor in chief for National Underwriter Life & Health. Before joining Summit, Bill was Director of Publications at the Risk and Insurance Management Society, a research analyst for the American Re-Insurance Company and an editor for various A.M. Best publications. Bill’s work has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Captive Review, New European Economy and other business publications. Bill is on Twitter and Facebook, and can be reached by email here.

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