Post Office Changes Could Hurt Small Town Newspapers

The US Postal Service says it needs to become a leaner organization by closing its smaller sorting centers. For most customers, the slower delivery will be an annoyance, but for the newspapers in many small Tennessee towns, it could be a costly change.

For newspapers whose subscriber base is spread out around the countryside, it doesn’t make economic sense to deliver papers directly to people’s houses. Instead, they’re sent via second class mail. Anything that stays in the same ZIP code will likely be fine, but the rest has to be processed at a sorting center. That can account for up to half of a rural paper’s subscription base.

Laura Wilkerson oversees circulation for the Savannah Courier. Right now, most of her out-of-town deliveries are sorted at a center in Jackson that’s slotted for closure. She says she already knows what it’s like to do without that facility. A number of years ago, it was hit by a tornado, and those papers were sorted in Memphis instead.

“We have a lot of out of state subscribers that are just over the state line here and it was taking them two weeks to get their paper when we were having the jam up over in Memphis.”

She says it was a nightmare that took months to sort out.

“The man hours to sit on the telephone and take those calls from people that are not getting something they paid for, a, sometimes not at all, b, getting two papers at once on the same day, you know, it just was ridiculous.”

That memory is at the front of her mind as Wilkerson thinks ahead to what will happen when the Jackson sorting center closes for good.

“I’m staring that in the face basically, going back through that again, possibly even worse, possibly losing twice as many subscribers, because we lost subscribers.”

Wilkerson is trying to come up with ways of sidestepping the sorting centers as much as possible. For one thing, she might hand-deliver bundles of papers to the closest post offices, but driving fifteen miles one way, twenty another, adds up. And some of those post offices are in danger of closing, too. The Courier’s website may need to pick up some slack, too. Right now it’s free, but it may be made available only to subscribers so that there’s someway of keeping that income stream from people who can’t expect to get a paper copy on time.

Congress recently gave Wilkerson a couple more months to prepare. The omnibus spending bill that was recently passed gives the Postal Service enough money to push back its proposed changes until May. The bill also specified that the post office can’t end Saturday deliveries, but so far, there’s no indication that the smaller sorting centers will be saved. In Tennessee, that will mean cutting back from nine statewide to just three.

Meanwhile, a federal oversight agency says the plan to restructure the mail service is based on flawed methodology. In a report issued last week, the Postal Regulatory Commission questioned how sites were selected to close or to stay open. The report is considered only an “advisory opinion.”

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