You might have noticed newspapers, magazines and other publications you normally get in the mail have not been coming as regularly in recent weeks.
Printed news publications that rely on the U.S. Postal Service to reach their customers have been hurt as the deliverer struggles to keep up with a record number of packages coupled with the impact of COVID-19 illnesses and exposures among its workers.
“We’re basically dead if we can’t deliver,” Jim Busis, CEO and publisher of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, told me. “We economically have no choice but to have the printed product. Our readers need it and want it, and there really is no alternative to the post office.”
Major daily newspapers typically have their own circulation systems to deliver directly to customers’ homes, but many weekly and monthly publications – think Pittsburgh Business Times, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Pittsburgh Magazine – rely on the Postal Service to go the last mile for many subscribers.
Most of these media outlets have a robust online presence but they count on the print product for some types of content and for advertising revenue. The Jewish Chronicle, for instance, has more online weekly users than print subscribers but many click in for just one story and the two groups overlap.
“Both sets of readers are significant to us,” Busis said, “and without reliable postal delivery of the print edition a significant number of readers are losing out, often the most vulnerable and isolated.”
As readers flood news outlets with complaints about missed deliveries in recent weeks and months, some publishers fear their printed products are being pushed to the bottom of the delivery chain.
Tad Kelley, a Postal Service spokesman in Pittsburgh, told me via email that the independent agency of the federal government has been doing the best it can.
Unlike United Parcel System (UPS) and FedEx, which limits how many packages they accept during the holiday season, the U.S. Postal Service takes everything customers give them. A historic volume of holiday letters and packages pushed the deliverer beyond its limits.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has sidelined many post office employees: some 19,000 of its 644,000 employees were off work in late December because they either had COVID-19 or were exposed to it, according to the American Postal Workers Union.
The Postal Service also had been going through changes and cuts in 2020 that were put on hold until after the November elections. Congress included a $10 billion in emergency relief to the Postal Service in the bill it passed last month, but challenges have continued.
Postal employees in Pittsburgh have been working around the clock and on weekends to keep up with demand, which now includes shoppers’ returns after the holidays, Kelley said.
“Nationally and locally, we delivered a record amount of packages this holiday season in the midst of the pandemic, which significantly impacted our workforce availability,” he wrote. “Capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail also led to temporary delays. These challenges were felt by shippers across the board.”
Kelley added that the Postal Service appreciates its employees for their hard work and thanks customers for their patience and understanding.
Busis said he sympathizes with the Postal Service, but he noted that the deliverer provides a critical service for informing the public. If mail service delays delivery by a week or more, readers miss timely news as well as events and promotions in ads.
Publishers do not have a systematic way of knowing how many printed editions do not get delivered, so they rely instead on anecdotal complaints from customers who didn’t receive them.
Service seems to be uneven, Busis said, noting that some customers have continued to receive the weekly Jewish Chronicle while others – notably in Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon – have been delayed by weeks or not gotten delivery at all. Significant problems, he said, started with the Dec. 18 edition and have continued.
The Pittsburgh Courier, which also relies on the mail service, has had problems with deliveries since mid-December, just as it did toward the end of October before Election Day when mail-in ballots flooded the system, an employee said. Customers who have prepaid get irate when the newspaper does not arrive, causing the company to extend their subscriptions.
For Pittsburgh Quarterly, which sends out 30,000 copies four times a year, the Postal Service has been pretty reliable but, again, there seemed to be a few more minor problems with the winter edition, publisher Doug Heuck told me.