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.
The Pittsburgh Business Times has experienced some minor delivery problems over the holidays as well, said Evan Rosenberg, market president and publisher. “The USPS and their inability to handle it all is clearly an issue for those of us who rely on it,” he said.
For many print publications, the Postal Service provides a unique service. The Chronicle’s subscribers, for instance, are too spread out – across the Pittsburgh region– for the newspaper to deliver them on its own. With a regional population of about 2.3 million people, Pittsburgh has about 50,000 Jewish adults and children living in 27,000 households, according to a 2017 study by Brandeis University.
The Chronicle drops off about 11,000 copies every Wednesday for the Postal Service to deliver before weekly Shabbat begins on Friday evening. Orthodox Jews whose religious faith does not allow them to use electronic devices during the weekly period of rest can still read the newspaper.
Most people have been understanding about the delays so far, Busis said, but if they continue past early January they will become a larger problem quickly.
“I am sympathetic to [the Postal Service] having to deal with this volume and short workforce, but I disagree that news periodicals are unimportant and can wait,” Busis said. “I think that was a really big mistake.”
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.