Saturday mail loss would sting worst in small towns


By Tonda Rush
National Newspaper Association

Why do small town newspapers publish on Saturdays?

The Saturday paper isn’t only for football as it is in many Texas towns, said Mary Judson, publisher of the Port Arkansas South Jetty in Texas. It provides coupons for store sales, announcements for Sunday church events and breaking news stories of small towns.

But it was sports that led the Times-Leader, a 6,900-circulation twice-weekly in the southwestern Kentucky town of Princeton, to start its Saturday paper.

Princeton is nestled in the flat farmlands of the state; a community steeped in history, having a downtown where there are few vacant buildings, with Interstate 69 and Interstate 24 running through the area. It is home to the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center, a hotbed for agriculture research through the state’s land-grant university.

Until 1992, two weeklies competed head to head. When they merged, a Saturday paper was created and the weekly became a twice weekly, publishing Wednesdays and Saturdays.

It is mailed through seven post offices in five counties. The publisher trucks bundles of newspapers to those post offices between the Friday night printing and Saturday’s dawn to get into mailboxes.

For Princeton, like most towns, the mailed newspaper has no substitute.

“Although there are four dailies with circulation in the area, none has more than a few hundred readers in Princeton,” according to Publisher John S. (Chip) Hutcheson III. “The Times-Leader circulates 5,400 papers each issue in Princeton, providing strong coverage of local government, schools, churches, civic clubs and police activity. Churches often use the Saturday paper to promote activities on Sunday. In this rural community, it is viewed as a major community-builder. It has a locally written opinion page both Wednesday and Saturday. Each issue of the paper ranges from a minimum of 24 pages to 36 pages. With a struggling radio station (in town), the newspaper is the only comprehensive news agent for the community.”

It will be newspapers like the Times-Leader and the South Jetty that will be most hurt by the U.S. Postal Service’s announcement that it wants to end Saturday mail delivery.

Although Congress has not yet agreed with that decision, the Postal Service wants to provide the opportunity for some industries to mail on Saturdays but not others. Newspapers would either have to find a new way to reach readers or change to a different delivery day.

But for a newspaper like the Times-Leader, picking a different day isn’t easy. A Friday paper would miss the sports scores from Friday-night games. Mondays would miss the church news and the sales. And killing that Saturday issue would deprive readers and eliminate Saturday advertising revenue.

“Newspaper personnel have been flooded with questions from family, friends and readers about what the paper would do (if Saturday mail stopped),” Hutcheson said. “Frankly, there is no good answer.”

The Postal Service has blamed its service reductions on the Internet. It is losing $25 million a day but much of that is because Congress makes it aggressively sock away money into the federal Treasury for future health care plans. It has lost nearly 40 percent of its First-Class Mail in the past five years.

One question is whether reducing service will stop the bleeding or accelerate it. In 2010, the Postal Service said it could save more than $3 billion with five-day delivery. Now it says the cost savings are closer to $2 billion. Its regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission, disagreed with the cost savings in 2010 and found the potential savings much less.

The commission questioned whether the Postal Service could handle delivery of all the held-back mail on Monday. In 2010, slowing delivery because of Monday holidays increased the Tuesday load by 64 percent, causing delays of that mail in the system throughout the rest of the week. Consistent Saturday closings could create the same waves of delay. The Postal Service estimated that up to 25 percent of First-Class Mail would be delayed in a five-day delivery environment, and some of it could be delayed up to five days.

In that mail are small business invoices, checks and credit card authorizations, another worry of Hutcheson’s and Judson’s. Small newspapers, like most small businesses, run on tight cash flows. Today’s checks from yesterday’s advertising and subscriptions pay for tomorrow’s printing. As they are affected, so will their small-business advertisers be affected, which could create a downward spiral in a barely-recovering economy in many parts of America.

The bigger question is: what sort of Postal Service does America need? The Postal Service says the public supports dropping Saturday delivery. But whether the public is aware of the risks to the economy, particularly in small towns, is debatable.

For most, the mail is taken for granted, even in a world where texts and emails have long since overtaken mail’s immediacy. Mail still supports more than $1 trillion in economic activity, according to a biennial study of the Envelope Manufacturers Association. And mailers pay for the Postal Service, not the general public.

To some the Saturday football scores may seem trivial next to all of that. But if you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know that Saturday paper and its game news is anything but trivial.

Tonda Rush is chief executive officer of the National Newspaper Association, a nonprofit trade association representing the owners, publishers and editors of community newspapers.