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Need to replace that copy of Flex Your Head you lost a few years ago? It’ll cost a bit more this time around. For the first time in its 27-year history, Dischord Records has stopped paying for postage on mail orders.
This week the U.S. Postal Service raised its postage rates for the second time in as many years. The rate for first-class letters went from 39 to 41 cents, and the cost for Dischord to send a CD via media mail jumped from $1.59 to $2.13. The label is now passing that cost on to its customers.
The decision to abandon free postage didn’t come easily for the label. “Over the years, we have resisted raising our prices along with previous postal-rate increases,” Dischord’s Web site says, but rates are now just “too expensive and confusing.” Instead of covering postage costs, Dischord is offering a postage calculator at its online store, and spokesperson Alec Bourgeois says he hopes customers will be sympathetic. “We’re lucky in many ways because people trust us,” he says. “If we make a decision that’s unpopular, they know we’re doing it for a good reason.”
Postage increases are usually accepted as part of the cost of doing business, but local publications worry another wave of rate hikes might pose a real threat to their survival. New periodical rates that kick in on July 15 have a more complicated pricing scheme. Smaller journals and magazines are still sorting through the details, but some fear their postage costs will increase by more than 30 percent. Among those concerned is Max Uhlenbeck, an editor of Left Turn, an antiwar, anti-globalization magazine with articles on “the new SDS” and “radical childcare.” Until about a month ago, Left Turn was produced online from its contributors’ homes, including Rami El-Amine’s house in Petworth. The mag now has an office in New York, but its distributors still keep it local. “I think our biggest seller is Busboys and Poets,” says Zein El-Amine, another of Left Turn’s founders and contributors. “So I just take it from my house…to the bookstore manager,” he says. “If there are any left, I just take back those magazines.”
According to Uhlenbeck, the magazine, which has an unaudited circulation of 5,000, was preparing to think bigger and initiate bulk distribution—but the postal-rate increase might force Left Turn to turn back. “The new system poses a challenge to us because just when we finally got to a point where we were ready to institute a bulk mailing system, now we are faced with a price increase that will probably make this jump impossible.”
The women behind the Adams Morgan–based feminist magazine Off Our Backs also aren’t sure how they’ll respond to the postage increase. Off Our Backs, published continuously since 1970, is housed at 2337B 18th St. NW, under Pharmacy Bar and behind a purple door and a sign that reads feminism is spoken here. Collective member Karla Mantilla says it’s difficult to gauge the impact of the new rates, which were published this spring. Whatever happens, Mantilla says, it can’t be good for Off Our Backs. “We’re really right on the edge,” she says. “That’s a significant burden to juggle when you’re already on a shoestring budget.” She adds that, because the new rates disproportionately affect smaller periodicals, they threaten the Postal Service’s long-standing commitment to ideological diversity.
What’s changed for smaller periodicals? According to Postal Service Classification Specialist Carrie Witt, rates used to be based on two components, the piece and pound rates, with discounts for mail put on pallets. Now, the Postal Service is using four components to determine rates, including piece rates, pound rates, bundle rates, and container rates. The new rates reward mailers for efficiency, favoring organizations that sort their mail finely—in other words, break it down into smaller geographical destinations—and deliver it to larger mail facilities. She acknowledges that “it could potentially be harder” for magazines with smaller circulations “to take advantage of [the new] work-share rates.” For example, she says, big publications might be better able to sort their mail finely and might have more personnel to do it. They may also have access to a fleet of trucks to transport their mail to processing or distribution centers, she says.
That change has sparked complaints from a variety of publishers across the political spectrum. In an April 18 letter to the chairman of the U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors, a bipartisan group of publishers and editors wrote that “these new rates will have grave consequences for disseminating the very type of information our founding fathers strove to protect and foster when they first established the public postal service.” The problem, they say, has to do with both the way rates will be calculated and how that calculation came to be. In March, the Postal Service Governors accepted periodical-rate recommendations from its regulator—recommendations that were based, with modification, on rates proposed by media giant Time Warner, says Dave Partenheimer, spokesperson for the Postal Service.
“What it means is that existing independent publications are going to have an extremely onerous and potentially destructive situation because of the increase to their postal rates,” says Tracy Van Slyke, publisher of In These Times magazine and a spokesperson for the Media Consortium, which represents left-leaning independent media organizations. “The Postal Service was created to disseminate independent journals. Now you’re letting big corporations dictate the rules for everyone else.”
Twenty people, including Van Slyke, signed the letter to Postal Board Chairman James C. Miller III criticizing the rate changes. Yet no one knows exactly how these new rate calculations will affect their publications. “Everything we are dealing with, everything everyone is dealing with, are estimates,” The Nation’s magazine president, Teresa Stack, says. Stack cites a 17 percent increase in postal costs for The Nation, which advertises itself as America’s oldest weekly magazine. That figure, she says, comes from her printer, Fry Communications, which based its calculations on the Time Warner model.
According to Witt, the periodical rates, like the rate increases in general, attempt to match prices with the mail’s processing costs. After all, she says, the Postal Service is “mandated by law to cover our costs for each piece of mail. These rates are as low as they can go while still covering our costs.”
But they may not be low enough for Potter, 27, who founded Eating People Like There Won’t Be Any Left Tomorrow last fall. She’s not sure what the postage increase portends for her zine, which chronicles the “trials and tribulations of transportation in Washington, D.C.” Potter says 20 to 50 copies of each issue are sent to Baltimore, New York, and Texas, and postage is covered by a nonprofit. She doesn’t know if the nonprofit will continue to foot the bill after the rate increase goes into effect. “We haven’t totally decided what we’re going to do yet. Maybe we won’t send out as many,” she says. “Some folks are really nervous.”
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