Going Postal

In the mid-1980s, at a conference on the role of journals of opinion that we co-sponsored with the journalism department at the University of Southern California, I made a point of putting postal matters at the top of the agenda, since keeping postage costs under control was one of the few issues around which journals of the left, right, and center might organize to mutual advantage. Robert Myers, a former publisher of The New Republic, told us about how, in the 1960s, he had put together a group of small-circulation magazines whose purpose was precisely to promote their common postal interests and which had even come up with a constructive proposal that he persuaded congressman Morris Udall to introduce as legislation: that the first 250,000 copies (in Udall’s bill, it was only 25,000) of all publications be mailable at reduced rates. That way, smaller publications and journals with heavy content (perhaps for reasons of high seriousness) would get the largest proportional benefit, but all magazines would get some benefit. Alas, the legislation never got anywhere.

The most articulate opposition to government help for small magazines came, surprisingly, from our friend Michael Kinsley, who had already come out against the second-class mail “subsidy,” as he called it, in a 1975 article in The Washington Monthly. At the conference he boiled his continuing objections down to three: Since the readership of journals like The Nation, The New Republic, and National Review were largely drawn from the highly educated elite, whose income was above average, the second-class subsidy therefore amounted to “a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.” Second, once the camel’s nose of government got into the tent of subsidizing opinion journals, Kinsley argued, content requirements would be inevitably hooked to the subsidy, raising profound First Amendment concerns. And, third, since opinion journalists were supposed to be watchdogs against special interests, it was wrong for us to become one ourselves. Kinsley observed that right-wingers should oppose such subsidies because they interfered with the free market, and left-wingers because they were regressive.

It was a virtuoso performance, and Kinsley, his forensic skills sharpened by hundreds of hours on “Crossfire,” had my vote as captain of the debate team. But then Tom Silk, the lawyer who successfully defended Mother Jones when the Reagan administration challenged its nonprofit tax status, made a telling point. Some things are too important to leave to the vicissitudes of the market, like national defense and clean air–even Kinsley conceded that these two were “public goods”–and public discourse and the dissemination of literature were two more.

And so, in 1995, when the trade press reported that the Postal Service (USPS) wanted to abolish second-class mail, my first impulse was to write an op-ed piece denouncing that agency. But that, I quickly realized, was the writer in me wanting to sound off. Now that I was a publisher (ahem) I had bigger guns to deploy. As a member of the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA), I assumed my trade group would be up in arms. So imagine my further consternation when I discovered that not only was the MPA not interested in challenging the USPS proposal, they were supporting it.

I had foolishly believed that since the MPA has a membership of 250 magazines, and since most of these magazines have circulations of 250,000 or under, they would represent their members’ interest. No such luck; 20 percent of the MPA’s members are responsible for 80 percent of its budget. Karl Marx was out of fashion, but he would surely have reminded me that if I had simply looked at the figures, I could have predicted MPA’s position, the position of the mega-publishers, the position of Time Warner and Dow Jones.

Lacking a trade association to make my case, I reverted to my writerly habit and went to the local library to see whether there was indeed a case to make and discovered a great deal of interest. First, Americans are lucky that when the British decided to clamp down on the colonies they did it via the Stamp Act. This provoked opposition from angry printers, because it curtailed their civil liberties and cost them money. Print was so central to the routine of colonial life that the public sphere itself–civil society as they knew it–seemed in peril. Early American governments spent a great deal of money building and maintaining the post roads, and politicians from all camps agreed to sustain the preferential low postage rates for newspapers that Franklin had established.

I also discovered that an organization called the American Business Press, representing mostly trade magazines, the vast majority of them with circulations well under 250,000, was pressing to retain the second-class category and keep the periodical subsidy, as Kinsley had called it, alive and well. I contacted their attorneys to find out what there was to find out, and to see whether there was a way The Nation and other journals of opinion might be heard.

The Business Press and our little anti-business magazine had, as Jesse Jackson might have put it, common ground. The attorneys for ABP were willing to share their research, leak the other side’s documents, and generally connive and conspire to help us bolster our case. Not only that, but although the proceedings were well under way before the Postal Rate Commission (PRC), which was charged under byzantine rules with holding hearings on the USPS proposals and then making recommendations to the Service’s board of governors–most of them Reagan and Bush appointees–and although many hours of testimony already had been taken, they explained that if I were willing to testify as a “rebuttal” witness on behalf of ABP, I could appear before the Rate Commission in person and make my case on behalf of journals of opinion as a class.

How could I say no? As I prepared for the big event, I was told that the commission had scheduled nine witnesses for that day, and my own appearance would probably take no longer than 20 minutes, a half hour at most.

I had previously testified before one congressional committee (as a witness on behalf of the ACLU), urging the adoption of a national shield law that would protect book authors as well as reporters from having to reveal their sources. My testimony was received and read into the record, I was thanked by the chairman, asked a few desultory questions by the late Rep. Ben Rosen, a friend of a friend, and dismissed. It took all of 10 minutes. But my appearance before the PRC lasted three hours, for the chairman announced as soon as I had finished my testimony that among those participants who had requested oral cross-examination of witness Navasky were the Office of the Consumer Advocate, Time Warner, Dow Jones & Co., the Magazine Publishers of America, and the U.S. Postal Service.

What followed helped remind me why I was glad I had never practiced law, and why they call it an adversary system. The thrust of my testimony had to do with why I believed the proposed elimination of the second-class-mail category would wound all journals of opinion, regardless of creed. In dollar terms the so-called reform would save millions in costs for magazines with mega-circulation like People and TV Guide (because of their ability to “pre-sort” and “drop-ship”–by this time I had internalized and incorporated the postal lingo into my pitch), but it would cost magazines like Commonweal or Human Events or The Nation something like 20 percent more than they were already paying (in The Nation‘s case this came to an extra $160,000 a year). My strategy was to try to seize the high ground and give a brief lecture on postal history.

For nearly two centuries, this philosophy prevailed. Only in recent decades has the notion that dissemination of independent opinion is essential to make democracy work begun to give way to bottom-line considerations.

It would be a tragedy if at this moment of unprecedented concentration in communications conglomerates, one of the few remaining institutions dedicated to the creation, propagation, circulation, and testing of new policy ideas–the journal of opinion–should become the casualty of lobbying by the very forces which make it more important than ever before that these independent voices–whatever their politics–be heard.

I did not expect, but I got a detailed interrogation on Ben Franklin’s motives and Tom Paine’s employment history. I don’t know how to convey the flavor of the exchange without reproducing it.

Then Keegan asked me, as I expected, “It is a fact, isn’t it, that newspapers were given preferential rates initially and magazines not, other periodicals were not?” I noted that the acknowledged authority on these matters wrote that Congress reserved the most privileged rate for newspapers, many of them avowedly political journals, and that the reason he used the word “journals” was that there was an ambiguity about the difference between newspapers and magazines, and in fact a lot of magazines disguised themselves as newspapers to get the benefit of the lower rates.

When I mentioned that the young apprentice printer Ben Franklin consciously set out to imitate Addison’s writings from The Spectator, Keegan asked me, “Is it your understanding Addison’s Spectator would have qualified for second-class rates?” This was a trick question, since magazines got no preferential treatment until 1852. So we sparred, and I repeated, “The preference did not include magazines, although newspapers, as I said, were modeled after a magazine, The Spectator. This was an oversight they finally got around to correcting. During that period you had this strange thing where a lot of magazines presented themselves in the format of newspapers.”

Keegan sought to reassure the commissioners that he had only one more page of testimony on which to cross-examine me, and the chairman, who was clearly having an okay time, demurred: “Please, Mr. Keegan, this is probably the most interesting and understandable cross-examination that any of us have ever been party to here. And the only problem I find with it is that it encourages me to want to leave and go home and read books rather than stay here and read testimony.”

Next came Mr. McBride from Dow Jones. Mr. McBride had earlier let me know privately that it was his brother Joseph who had written the newsmaking Nation article about the possibility that President George H.W. Bush had been in the CIA prior to becoming its director, in which case he had perjured himself at his confirmation hearing, where he denied previous agency involvement. McBride’s goal, if I understood his badgering questions correctly, seemed to be to use The Nation‘s ratio of advertising to editorial content to catch me out. My general defense was that “it costs us 10.4 cents to physically produce a copy of our magazine and it costs us 16 cents to mail it.

I quote these colloquies to show the harassment which citizens who believe (rightly or wrongly) they are testifying in the public interest can be made to suffer. Commissioner LeBlanc wanted to know whether The Nation, like another small publisher who testified earlier, would consider dropping some of its subscribers to avoid the extra cost if new regulations went into effect that charged higher delivery rates to magazines with fewer than 24 readers in any zip-code area?

In the end, after months of hearings, briefs, witnesses, rebuttal witnesses (me), reply briefs, and such, the PRC made its recommendations to the Board of Governors, which agreed with them. For the first time in the history of the U.S. postal bureaucracy, the PRC recognized the importance of the journal of opinion as a separate category.

To make a complex ruling simple, they changed the name of second class to periodicals class, but did not break it up to give the mega-few an advantage over the small-circulation many. A mini-victory for our side!

But the real philosophical point–that journals of opinion should not be required to pay their own way–had not yet re-entered the national dialogue. Bob Sherrill had explained way back in 1970 in The Nation that the so-called efficiency that market economics is supposed to provide often works against the poor: “Excusing themselves on the ground of efficiency, the railroads cut out ‘unprofitable’ passenger service; telephone companies avoid so far as possible the servicing of any but the more populated areas; and airlines drop routes and schedules. At present, the postal service costs the taxpayers about $1 billion above the costs that are paid by stamp sales. This is hardly a drain, when compared to the $3 billion in agricultural subsidies and the $120 billion in defense subsidies. And yet the great cry from postal references has been the need to ‘break even.'”

In the 10 years since those hearings, the Independent Press Association, a San Francisco based MPA-type outfit for the little guy, has signed up 400 small-circulation magazines, and the IPA now appears before the PRC on behalf of all of them. So, let’s hope that this time around IPA’s stance gets a hearing beyond the PRC’s hearing room. All citizens, not just publishers, editors, writers, and readers of these journals, have a stake in the sort of elevated public discourse that they occasionally exemplify.

Victor S. Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, is the author of A Matter of Opinion (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; May 2005), from which this article is excerpted. Copyright 2005, Victor Navasky.

Victor S. Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, is the author of A Matter of Opinion (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; May 2005), from which this article is excerpted. Copyright 2005, Victor Navasky.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation