Publishers go to Washington

HSPA board
Sarah O. Wilson, owner and publisher of the Rochester Sentinel (left), and Randall Shields, vice president for HNE Printing in Columbus, visited the U.S. Capitol as part of a contingent of newspaper executives.

By Sarah O. Wilson and Randall Shields
The Rochester Sentinel and HNE Printing

We believe in newspapers.

At HSPA’s invitation, we took our convictions to Washington, D.C., this month on behalf of the Fourth Estate in Indiana.

We visited the nation’s capital March 14 to lobby our state’s congressional delegation as part of the We Believe in Newspapers Leadership Conference and Postal Summit sponsored by the National Newspaper Association.

The association, noted for its focus on U.S. Postal Service issues, hosts an annual meeting in Washington. Normally about 35 publishers attend. This year more than 100 from 34 states showed up to oppose recent major postal decisions and proposals.

These include the Feb. 6 announce­ment that Saturday mail delivery would end Aug. 6 and the Postal Regulatory Commission’s approval of a negotiated service agreement between private direct-mail company Valassis and the Postal Service.

When Tonda Rush, CEO and general counsel for the National Newspaper Association, asked HSPA to send Hoosier publishers to the summit, Executive Director and General Counsel Steve Key thought of us because our papers started utilizing the Postal Service to deliver news to readers in recent years. (HSPA subsidized our attendance.)

The Rochester Sentinel moved its Monday through Saturday subscriber delivery to all-mail in 2008. The Greenfield Reporter (an HNE paper), its weeklies and its shopper moved four years ago, although The Reporter’s Saturday editions continue to be delivered by independent contractors.

We think we made a difference in Washington.

The day started at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va., where National Newspaper Association organizers prepared us for our afternoon on Capitol Hill.

“We want reliable, timely service; rates low; to have a fair advertising marketplace; and six-day mail delivery,” Rush said.

The Postal Service interprets a congressional mandate in a way that allows them to change the number of delivery days without Congress’ approval.

The U.S. Senate on March 20 approved a spending bill that maintains the six-day mail provision. The U.S. House of Representatives followed suit on March 21.

At press time, however, some lawmakers had implied that plans to cut Saturday service could proceed.

Concerning the service agreement with Valassis, the National Newspaper Association filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in early March arguing that the Postal Regulatory Commission failed to follow federal law in approving the historic postage discount for the direct-mail company.

We also heard from the Postal Service: Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe; Inspector General David C. Williams; David E. Williams, vice president for network operations; and Tom Foti, manager for direct mail and periodicals.

Donahoe said that while retiree healthcare cost is an issue, “the (financial) issue is the decrease in mail.”

Since 2007, first-class mail has decreased 37 percent, Donahoe said.

“That mail is not coming back,” he said. “This is not a manufactured crisis.”

Donahoe said the Postal Service is looking for new ways to put itself on firm financial footing so it can continue to operate. Thus, the announced end of Saturday delivery, except packages, which remains profitable, he said.

The inspector general praised periodicals.

Generous postal policies were a reason the press became so powerful, he said.

“The Postal Act of 1792 did more than the First Amendment toward the flourishing of the press … (and) the flowering of democracy,” he said. “The press and the post office have a special relationship. … Periodicals are the reason people go to their mail box.”

And later he said, “The Fourth Estate may be more important at this stage than the other three. … We need to support you in any way we can.”

Network Operations Vice President Williams said first-class mail pays a significant part of the Postal Service’s fixed costs.

It takes three times the number of standard mail pieces to equal the contributions from one first-class piece, he said. And the overnight delivery constraints will soon go away from the blue collection boxes, further delaying delivery by one day or more.

When asked about the new intelligent mail bar codes, he said, “It’s a big chal­lenge to get those scanned on our equipment.”

Then we were off to the Hill.

We met with staffers for Sen. Dan Coats (R); Sen. Joe Donnelly (D); Rep. Susan Brooks (R-5th District), who was speaking on the House floor; Rep. Luke Messer (R-6th District), who came out of his office to shake our hands; and Freshman Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-2nd District).

Donnelly’s staffer gave us the impression he did not support a reduction in mail delivery days. The others did for financial reasons.

Everyone said they had not heard much reaction from their constituents about the announced change.

Details of the Valassis negotiated service agreement were news to all but Donnelly’s staffer, and all agreed to follow up to learn more about it.

The day ended with dinner at the National Press Club. Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, gave the keynote address.

Our time in the capital was short. And while we were new to the lobbying game, we think we got our points across and made some friends along the way.

Sarah O. Wilson is owner and publisher of the Rochester Sentinel. Randall Shields is vice president for HNE Printing and former publisher of the Greenfield Reporter.