MERCER: For newspapers, crunch has come on mail, legalsBack when I was a boy, we didn’t have the Internet. We had twice-daily mail service, however, and Saturday mail service.
Back when I was a boy, we didn’t have the Internet. We had twice-daily mail service, however, and Saturday mail service.
We didn’t have iPods, but we had AM radio and 45s and LPs and 8-track tapes. FM radio was getting a foothold. We had TV.
We didn’t have cell phones, or cable or satellite television, but we had one telephone in the house, and that gradually converted from rotary dial to push-button. And we had newspapers.
Five hundred years ago across North America there weren’t any of those.
Post offices and newspapers gradually came into existence, as European settlers looked for ways to exchange information vital to commerce and self-government in their new world.
How we communicate has changed in ways that we wish we had been creative enough to imagine and smart enough to accomplish.
Recently newspapers were pronounced dead during testimony at a public hearing held by the Legislature’s rules review committee regarding a rate increase for legal advertising.
The U.S. Postal Service meanwhile is looking to close more rural offices and enact more reductions in delivery service.
In many South Dakota communities the money made from legal advertising is crucial to the existence of the local newspapers.
Likewise the price breaks that newspapers have received for mailing, as well as Saturday mail delivery, are essential to distributing the local newspapers, especially to their rural customers.
It is hard for newspaper publishers and their staffs to argue that they must receive help from the government, especially while they also argue they shouldn’t be subject to government interference in obtaining public information or in choosing what they want to say in print.
Yes, it seems the newspaper business wants freedom of the press and government help.
But if we look back in our nation’s history to the era of the American Revolution, we find that our country’s leaders wanted exactly that.
They encouraged a free press and decided the press should be paid to publish the nation’s laws.
And, so as to ensure more newspapers could share information and more people could receive it, our nation’s founders and their next generation decided the press must receive substantial breaks on mailing.
The postal system was held in such absolute importance that Congress took control of it away from the president.
Jeffrey Pasley, a faculty member at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has extensively studied the roots of the press in our nation and published, in 2001, his book: “The Tyranny of Printers / Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.”
“By 1794 newspapers accounted for 70 percent of the mail by weight, but for only 3 percent of the postage,” he wrote.
Pasley observed that government policies shaped the structure of the new nation’s newspaper industry. Here is one of the ways he saw:
“The laws were to be printed by newspapers in each state, and other government printing expenditures were spread out as well, with many contracts and legal advertisements emanating from individual custom houses, land offices, and post offices all over the nation.”
Here is another of the ways he said:
“In postal policy, the government opted for decentralization quite deliberately … Newspapers could be put in the mail from any point in the system, rather than just at the capital, as was typical in Europe…
“Instead, the favorable treatment was extended to all papers equally, even those published in the smallest rural hamlets.”
In fact, as Pasley notes, the rates were established to provide further breaks on papers mailed to addresses within 100 miles, providing some protection against papers achieving broad geographic circulation.
“Free exchanges allowed the content of the national press to penetrate everywhere, while the other policies ensured that the primary delivery points for that content would be hundreds of small-circulation newspapers published in market towns, county seats, and state capitals all over the republic,” Pasley wrote.
And when Congress passed the Sedition Act, on July 14, 1798, to penalize critics of government, many more newspapers sprung up as a counterforce. A truly partisan press took shape, between small-r republicans and federalists.
New forms of communication such as radio, TV and Internet in the past century changed the equation.
Population shifts contributed too, as did the nation’s ever-deepening federal debt, and the growing concentration of newspapers under corporate ownership.
Many people now question the need for paid legal advertising in newspapers. They see free publication on the Internet as a low-cost alternative.
The postal service meanwhile can’t catch a break and sinks further into the red. Unable to generate new sources of revenue, and seeing so much of package delivery siphoned away by commercial companies, the postal service is trying to cut costs and that means less service.
When I hear Yvonne Taylor of the South Dakota Municipal League argue against the legal advertising rate increase, or see Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, submit legislation that would repeal key requirements for legal advertising, it hurts to the core of this newspaperman’s soul.
But I understand. They are upstanding people who see a changed world. Yes, newspapers are the only local news outlet in most communities in our state. But so many people no longer see newspapers as essential, as relevant.
The pain is not the result of their opinions but of the knowledge we have allowed this to be done to, and by, ourselves.
Standing pat won’t work for much longer. Rather than simply saying “no” we must ask “How now?”
One of the newspapers from the early days of our nation was the Sun of Liberty. That would be a good image for all to keep in mind: What as a nation we’re really about.