By Tonda F. Rush
National Newspaper Association

The U.S. Postal Service could soon be required to produce regular studies of on-time delivery of rural and small-town mail.

The National Newspaper Association asked for these studies in March, and now a key congressional committee is mandating the studies.

Since the Postal Service closed nearly 150 mail processing plants, mostly in smaller urban and rural areas, reports of problems with rural delivery in all mail classes have abounded, and many have reached members of Congress.

A comment submitted by NNA Vice President Chip Hutcheson, publisher of the Princeton (Kentucky) Times Leader, was a typical concern: “We have experienced severe degradation of service since January 2015. Our newspaper is prepared for maximum delivery outside our county, yet we find subscribers 30 miles away not receiving a paper for seven days after it has been mailed.

“Also, First Class Mail has deteriorated greatly,” Hutcheson said. “There will be a large pile of mail one day and virtually nothing the next, and that cycle seems to repeat itself. Our local utility has experienced problems with customers not getting bills on time.”

The Postal Service has been required since 2008 to measure on-time mail delivery for every class of mail each fiscal quarter and report results to the Postal Regulatory Commission.

The data is drawn from a variety of sources, including reports by in-home monitors provided by contractor IBM.

But the National Newspaper Association worked with the monitors in 2008 to develop a study for in-county mail and found it difficult to find monitors in communities served by most small NNA newspapers.

The Postal Service now wants to cast aside the in-home monitor system and rely solely on data from its own scanning technology. NNA told the Postal Regulatory Commission it supports the USPS proposal, hoping the new system will be more useful for community newspapers than the old one.

But NNA said more robust data from rural areas must be developed and reported.

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed with the National Newspaper Association.

At the request of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, the committee adopted a requirement for USPS to create the sort of study NNA asked for. It would require measurement of service from rural areas to rural areas, rural to urban areas and urban to rural areas.

The measure still might not become law. Numerous controversies reside in other parts of the bill, including funding cuts and new restrictions on the Internal Revenue Service for its reported discrimination against certain nonprofit associations.

But even if the law is not enacted, the Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission may decide to go ahead with the study.

“We are gratified to learn that USPS and the PRC have already been meeting to decide how to fulfill NNA’s request. They have to work out a lot of details, such as the definition of ‘rural’ and how often, where and when the studies will be done,” said Max Heath, Postal Committee Chairman for the National Newspaper Association. “What is important to us is that they begin somewhere. We need a baseline to see whether service is improving or declining.

“We are facing more plant closings in 2016,” Heath said. “Some metrics to let us know how hard these changes are hitting our smaller communities are urgently needed.”

The National Newspaper Association’s postal work is designed to benefit small towns, not solely newspapers, said NNA Government Relations Chairwoman Deb McCaslin, executive editor of the Custer County (Nebraska) Chief.

“Ironically, newspapers may not be the first to see results from this study because USPS will be using its barcode technology,” McCaslin said. “We are a good ways away from getting newspaper delivery measured that way.

“But this study is important to our towns. Healthy communities lead to informed citizens, and that helps all of us,” she said. “But if the mail is broken, the community is not healthy. We want to see the Postal Service moving ahead quickly on rural mail measurement.”

Tonda F. Rush is chief executive officer and general counsel of the National Newspaper Association.