After January, the United States Postal Service can’t raise postage by a rate higher than that of inflation—or around 3 percent, which is significantly less than the 10 to 15 percent or higher jump seen by many mailers last year. On top of that, under new postal reform, mailers are being guaranteed a standard of service on flat-mail rates. The new Flat Sequencing System, set to start in phase one October 2008, is expected to free up 40 percent of mail-carriers’ time, marking what some feel has been a much-needed change in the labor framework.

But the USPS has until December 20 to squeeze in another hike before the law change. And Lloyd Mills, administrator of postal affairs at printer company DPC, says the FSS, even with its strengths, “is quite the beast.”

For flat sequencing, the USPS has proposed (in its Federal Register, Oct. 17) a set of strict—and according to some, quite drastic—rules that publishers and printers will need to follow to be charged anything other than full-rate, single-piece first class mail. Publishers have until December 10 to make comments on the rules before they are set in January ’08 and implemented one year from then.

Mailing Label Changes

One of the biggest changes would be to mailing labels. Under the proposed terms, labels would need to be either parallel to and within three inches of the top edge, or perpendicular to and within two and a half inches of the top edge, on either the front or the back of the magazine. The "top" edge, according to the Federal Register, is the upper edge of the mailpiece when the spine is vertical and to the right. In other words, labels will need to be upside down at the foot. Address font size would need to be at least 8 point, Arial preferred, and the leading would need to be at least .028 inches.

According to the proposal, the new standards “will enable FSS to process flat-size pieces…at high speeds and reduce the time carriers spend manually sorting flat-size mail.” On their routes, carriers “need not reorient” the pieces “to read the address, whether the mail is held, pulled from a mailbag, or removed from a tray.”

“All publishers need to sit down with printers and artistic people and ask, ‘How will we make the changes because we have chosen to use mail as a medium,’” asks Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce.

Kelly McMurray, creative director of 2communique, says it may require rethinking the publication cover, maybe even having one for newsstand and one for mailing. “In a time when electronic publishing is becoming more prevalent,” she says, “I think the post office should be more forward-thinking about their technology and how it affects design, not more restrictive.”

Petra Kobayashi, art director of Self, is not concerned. “If the magazine gets shipped to a subscriber, they will unwrap it and see the actual unchanged magazine.”

Address Requirements

Another standard is an 11-digit Intelligent Mail Barcode on all automation-rate first-class mail, periodicals, standard mail, and bound printer matter flat-size pieces. Addresses need to be precise and verified. The USPS has recommended that list owners “use address validation products before adding addresses to their lists and let their list suppliers know that un-validated addresses are not desirable.” They suggest using list cleansing services.

Del Polito notes the significance: “If a mailer fails to accomplish these standards,” he says, “rates will have to be standard first-class rates. So there is a motivation to get it right.”

Mail Handling

“Flat mail has to be flexible with the new standards,” says Mills. “If you put it on the edge of the desk and it bends by 50 percent, you need to be able to turn it 180 degrees with the spine out and see that it is also as bendable.” He notes that this might particularly affect advertisers who use cardboard and other hard inserts. "This has 80 percent to do with the mail carrier, making sure he can finger through it all,” says Mills.

In terms of handling, Mills is more concerned about the effect of the new FSS machinery. “Right now, about 17 percent of mail gets damaged,” Mills adds. “Covers of magazines with saddle-stitches tend to snap off.”

Rate Hike Before Christmas?

Del Polito is “confident” that a rate hike won’t happen before the law changes. David Straus, postal counsel for ABM, agrees. “I think it will be CPI indicated. All signs point to them doing that.”

Mills, on the other hand, says he has a “gut feeling” that they’ll get one in before the deadline but that it won’t be as large, maybe two to five percent.

Even once the window has passed for non-CPI-indicated rate hikes, publishers and printers are not in the clear.

“The inflation cap applies to the class level,” says Del Polito. “Overall, the class can’t increase more than the rate of inflation. But within class levels, some rates may be more or less.”

So will this help or hurt magazine mailers? “In theory, it should help,” says Straus. “But that’s if it’s regulated. There’s no assurance that it will be.”

What Straus sees as a potential problem for some publishers is a change not only to the rate level but to the rate design, which he compares to renting a car—some services rent by the mile, others by the day. Depending on your needs, one will benefit you and one will hurt you. However, with the postal service, there’s not much room for choice.

“We’ll face a change in rate design in the future. Some will be hit worse than others. I’m hoping it won’t hit small circ publishers like last time,” he says.

What Can Be Done

Mailers can submit comments on changes by no later than December 10. Comments can be sent to Sharon Daniel; Manager, Mailing Standards; USPS; 375 L’Enfant Plaza; SW Room, 3236; Washington, DC 20260-3436. According to Mills, post-master general Jack Potter has said, “I don’t want to hear from self-serving printers.” Mills feels publishers can carry more weight, but many don’t have the time or resources to look into postal matters.

“The post office tends to talk to the R.R. Donnelleys, the Quebecors, the Time, Inc.s. They put out a Federal Register but small and medium-sized printers and publishers are just trying to survive.”

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