The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 4: Expanding Postal Subsidies

by on April 20, 2010 · 2 comments

As mentioned here before, PFF has been rolling out a new series of essays examining proposals that would have the government play a greater role in sustaining struggling media enterprises, “saving journalism,” or promoting more “public interest” content. We’re releasing these as we get ready to submit a big filing in the FCC’s “Future of Media” proceeding (deadline is May 7th).  Here’s a podcast Berin Szoka and I did providing an overview of the series and what the FCC is up to.

In the first installment of the series, Berin Szoka and I critiqued an old idea that’s suddenly gained new currency: taxing media devices or distribution systems to fund media content. In the second installment, I took a hard look at proposals to impose fees on broadcast spectrum licenses and channeling the proceeds to a “public square channel” or some other type of public media or “public interest” content. The third installment dealt with proposals to steer citizens toward “hard news” and get them to financially support it through the use of “news vouchers” or “public interest vouchers.”

In our latest essay, “The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 4: Expanding Postal Subsidies,” Berin and I argue that expanding postal subsidies won’t likely do much to help failing media enterprises, will raise the risk of greater meddling by politicians with the press, and can’t be absorbed by the Postal Service without a significant increase in cost for ratepayers or taxpayers.  The entire essay is attached down below.

The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 4:
Expanding Postal Subsidies

by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka

PFF Progress on Point 17.5 [PDF]

In this ongoing series, we‘ve been exploring various tax and regulatory proposals that would have public policymakers play a greater role in propping up the press in some way. Some academics, advocacy groups, and government officials have suggested that steps need to be taken to assist struggling media enterprises, support news-gathering efforts, or expand public media options. In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we expressed concern about proposals to impose taxes on devices, networks, or broadcast spectrum licenses to funnel money to public media projects or other “public interest” content or objectives.[1] In Part 3, we questioned the wisdom of government officials creating “news vouchers” or “public interest vouchers.”[2] Other essays will deal with taxes on advertising as a method of funding public media, and the wisdom of welfare for journalists and bailouts for media operators.

A wrap-up essay will then focus on some potentially constructive policy reforms that could assist media enterprises without a massive infusion of state support or regulation of the press. These essays will then be cobbled together and submitted as part of PFF’s filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of its “Future of Media” proceeding (filings are due May 7th).

In this essay we discuss an idea favored by a number of media scholars and advocacy groups: expanded postal subsidies as a method of assisting struggling media enterprises.[3] The revisionist histories penned by some of these scholars would have us believe the Founding Fathers were practically media Marxists, enthralled with public subsidization of the press.  Of course, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Just because they provided a modest postal subsidy for press materials doesn’t mean the Founders believed that government should be micromanaging or massively subsiding this sector. The “Congress shall make no law” language found in the First Amendment confirms that.

Can We Afford It?

Practically speaking, the idea of expanding postal subsidies at this time seems like a non-starter. The U.S. Postal Service simply can’t absorb the losses associated with expanded postal subsidies. The Washington Post recently noted that, “The Postal Service is on course to lose more than $7 billion this year, despite substantial recent cost-cutting, and it could lose more than $238 billion by 2020. Approaching the limits of its federal credit line, the USPS must change drastically or go bust.”[4] The U.S. Postal Service itself has noted that, “even if its plan [to cut losses and increase revenues] was to succeed in every action that present legislation allows, the Postal Service would still face unsustainable losses of at least $115 billion by 2020.”[5] Yet the Postal Service acknowledges it has “an unsustainable business model” as volume and revenues continue to plummet with no end in sight.[6] Similarly, in a recent report to Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Postal Service’s business model “is not viable due to [its] inability to reduce costs sufficiently in response to continuing mail volume and revenue declines.”[7]

One cost-saving method that the Postal Service has floated is an increase in “preferred-class pricing” (subsidized rates for media products):

Addressing the pricing of preferred mail—such as non-profit mail, Media Mail, Library Mail, and Periodicals—would ensure that these products get to a point where they cover costs while contributing reasonably to overhead costs. An alternative would be appropriations funding to cover the gap.[8]

Thus, it seems clear that the Postal Service itself believes even existing postal subsidies place too great of a strain on an already failing system. And the GAO notes:

Historically, some types of mail were designed to channel broad public goals, such as furthering the dissemination of information, the distribution of merchandise, and the advancement of nonprofit organizations.  For example, Periodicals (mainly, mailed magazines and newspapers) have historically been given favorable rates, consistent with the view that they help bind the nation together, but this class has not covered its costs for the past 13 fiscal years.… These escalating losses have provoked growing concern and controversy.[9]

The report notes annual losses for the various categories of subsidized mail service and the mounting costs of subsidies, as illustrated in the adjoining exhibit.[10]

As the cost of existing postal subsidies mount, it seems likely the public wouldn’t take kindly to the idea of being forced to foot the bill for vastly increased subsidies. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, more Americans would rather give up some daily service than pay more to the Postal Service to cover the massive losses the Postal Service is expected to incur in coming years:  71% of those polled said they favored ending Saturday deliveries while just 44% said they favored raising stamp prices or providing additional federal funding.[11] For these reasons, a significant expansion of media subsidies seems both unwise and untenable.

More Subsidies, More Meddling

Importantly, as is the case with many of the other proposals discussed in our ongoing series, a significant expansion in government involvement raises the specter of increased meddling by policymakers with the media.  Proponents of expanding postal subsidies often gloss over the rather horrifying history of censorship by the Postal Service in the past.

Most notably, Nichols claims that “postal subsidies… helped to foster the abolitionist press,” and claims that this proves that “we can have a dissident, challenging—anti-government press, operating within a system of subsidies.”[12] But, again, there’s a bit of revisionist history at work here.  David Walker Howe, author of the magisterial history, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, details the history of the Postal Service in the early Republic and its central importance (until the invention of the telegraph) as the country’s primary information distribution system.  Howe notes that the newspapers (and other printed matter) constituted the “overwhelming bulk of the mail” and his account suggests that subsidies undoubtedly played an important role in increasing readership of, and competition among, newspapers—including abolitionist newspapers.[13] But he also notes that the U.S. Postal Service effectively censored these publications in the South from the mid-1830s until secession a quarter-century later.[14] Howe notes that “The refusal of the Post Office to deliver abolitionist mail to the South may well represent the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history.”[15] He also suggests that censorship may have accelerated the radicalization of North against South, and accelerated the coming of war: “Deprived of access to communication with the South [by postal censorship], the abolitionists would henceforth concentrate on wining over the North.”[16]

Sadly, this kind of censorship became a distinctly illiberal American tradition.  In 1865, Congress banned sending obscene materials through the mails, apparently out of concern about adult novels being mailed to Federal troops at the front.[17] In the late 1800s, for example, Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, used the mail system as the primary mechanism of his censorship crusades.  After successfully pushing Congress to pass an expanded obscenity law through Congress in 1873 that censored, among many other things, information about abortion and conception, Comstock was promptly appointed as a Post Office special agent and given the power “to seize publications and devices he considered immoral and to prosecute their senders.”[18] Later, in 1914, the Post Office began an ongoing crackdown on James Joyce’s Ulysses and any publication that had the temerity to even publish passages from the work.[19]

Postal system censorship was also ramped up during World War I after Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which included provisions giving the Postmaster General power to impound publications he deemed seditious.  According to media historians Michael and Edwin Emery, authors of The Press and America: An Interpretive History of Mass Media, “some forty-four papers lost their mailing privileges during the first year of the Espionage Act and another thirty retained them only by agreeing to print nothing more concerning the war.”[20] They note that: “The axe fell most heavily on Socialist organs and German-language newspapers; a few other pacifist or anti-Ally publications also lost their mail privileges.  The American Socialist was banned from the mails immediately and was soon followed by Solidarity, the journal of the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World.”[21] It wasn’t until 1946 that the Supreme Court finally began to constrain the Post Office’s censorial ways after it denied second-class mailing privileges to Esquire because it supposedly featured “morally improper” content.[22]

Of course, the worst of the Postal Service’s censorial days are likely well behind us—especially since courts today probably wouldn’t tolerate such blatant violations of the First Amendment.   Nonetheless, a significant ramping-up of postal subsidies for the press creates new potential pressure points for policymakers to exploit, even if in marginal, indirect ways.  Policymakers, in turn, will likely feel increased pressure from vocal constituents because, the more substantial the subsidy becomes, the more obvious it will be to taxpayers that they are paying for the cost of supporting media they may find objectionable, either because of its particular viewpoint or its content. As Thomas Jefferson famously put it in the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”[23] That is, we naturally—and rightly—resent subsidizing speech that is antithetical to our own values.[24]

Why Subsidize the Distribution System of the Past?

Finally, why we would want to subsidize this old form of distribution anyway?  Electronic media is clearly the way of the future.  There’s a reason science fiction movies never show someone going out to pick up the morning newspaper in the year 2200.  In addition to subsidizing newspaper delivery in the early days of the Post Office, between 1785 and 1845 the postal system was used to subsidize stagecoach travel and routes, even though it was more expensive and less efficient than using single riders to deliver the mail.  The hope was to encourage the development of stage lines and to thereby ease interstate travel for regular citizens.  Perhaps there was something to be said for that idea then, or for using postal contracts to promote the development of canals or railroads or aviation, at least these subsidies were intended to accelerate the development and adoption of emerging technologies, not waning ones.  We would laugh today if someone told us the Postal Service should be subsidizing stagecoach travel—or any other form of transportation, for that matter.  So why isn’t it considered just as laughable to say that the Post Office should be subsidizing media printed on dead trees that need to be physically shuttled around the country and then disposed of?  Why incur the additional “carbon footprint” of all that unnecessary rearranging and moving of atoms when we can just deal with bits?

This is 2010, not 1910.  It’s time to begin letting go of our old, inefficient physical systems for distributing information, and recognize that, in the Digital Era, communications and transportation have finally separated.  Even U.S. Postmaster General John Potter has noted that his organization’s business model is as outdated as the newspaper industry’s:

“Twenty years ago we would laugh at the notion that a newspaper would ever embrace the idea that maybe the channel of the future is electronic and that you may have to change your business model,” Potter told a group of reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.  He added, “Likewise, the postal service is in a situation where the behavior of America is changing and we have to fix and change our business model to adapt to it.”[25]

At some point in the future, newspapers will probably gradually die out, but the news companies that print them and their emerging competitors will continue to produce journalism.  The only difference is that they will distribute their information products over the Internet to screens (and speakers and headphones) on a wide variety of devices yet to be invented.  Increasing postal subsidies merely—and quite literally—“paper over” the fundamental problem faced by traditional print media of dealing with this technological transition.


[1] Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 1: Taxes on Consumer Electronics, Mobile Phones & Broadband, PFF Progress on Point 17.1, March 2010, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/2010/pop17.1-the_wrong_way_to_reinvent_media.pdf; Adam Thierer, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 2: Broadcast Spectrum Taxes to Subsidize Public Media, PFF Progress on Point 17.2, March 2010, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/2010/pop17.2-wrong_way_part_2.pdf.

[2] Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media, Part 3: Media Vouchers, PFF Progress on Point 17.4, April 2010, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/2010/pop17.4-media_vouchers.pdf.

[3] See Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism (2010) at 168-9; Geoffrey Cowan & David Westphal, Public Policy and Funding the News, USC Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism, Research Series, 2010, at 9, http://fundingthenews.org; Free Press, Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy, at 36-7, 2009, www.freepress.net/files/saving_the_news.pdf.

[4] Congress is Running Out of Time to Save the Postal Service, The Washington Post, March 10, 2010, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/09/AR2010030903337.html

[5] United States Postal Service, Ensuring a Viable Postal Service for America, 2010, at 1, www.usps.com/strategicplanning/_pdf/Ensuring_Viable_USPS_paper.pdf

[6] Id. at 3.

[7] United States Government Accountability Office, U.S. Postal Service: Strategies and Options to Facilitate Progress toward Financial Viability, GAO-10-455, April 2010, at 6, www.gao.gov/new.items/d10455.pdf.

[8] Id. at 14.

[9] Id. at 46 (emphasis added).

[10] Id. at 47.

[11] Ed O’Keefe & Jon Cohen, Poll Says Most Americans Back Halting Saturday Mail But Not Closing Post Offices, The Washington Post, March 30, 2010, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/29/AR2010032903823.html.

[12] Transcript: Saving American Journalism, Now on PBS, Jan. 15, 2010, www.pbs.org/now/shows/603/transcript.html.

[13] David Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007) at 226-27.

[14] Id.  at 427-30.

[15] Id.  at 430.

[16] Id.

[17] Margaret A. Blanchard, Revolutionary Sparks: Freedom of Expression in Modern America (1992) at 16.

[18] Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (2001) at 32.

[19] In 1918, a publication called The Little Review began published excerpts from Ulysses. Marjorie Heins explains what happened next: “The U.S. Post Office confiscated and burned four separate issues of the Review, and in January 1920 told [Review publishers] Heap and Anderson that it would put them out of business if they continued to publish Ulysses.” Id. at 40-41.

[20] Michael Emery & Edwin Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretive History of Mass Media (Prentice Hall, 6th Ed., 1988) at 297.

[21] Id.

[22] Heins, supra note 18 at 47. The case was Hannegan v. Esquire 327 U.S. 146 (1946).

[23] http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/vaact.html

[24] See Thierer & Szoka, supra note 2 at 7 (discussing the inevitability of political pressure for subsidy strings).

[25] Drew Wheatley, Postal Service Chief: Our Business Model as Outdated as the Newspaper Industry’s, The Hill Blog, March 11, 2010, http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/86265-postal-service-chief-our-business-model-as-outdated-as-the-newspaper-industrys.

Wrong Way to Reinvent Media Part 4 – Postal Subsidies [Thierer & Szoka - PFF]

  • Mike_Wendy

    Good paper.

  • Mike_Wendy

    Good paper.

Previous post:

Next post: