USPS may start selling mag subscriptions

The Postal Service wants people to keep checking their mailboxes

Your next magazine subscription may well be purchased at the post office—the Postal Service could begin selling magazines directly to consumers as soon as next month.

The news comes from the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee. MTAC is a committee made up of representatives from the US Postal Service and various industries related to it—from magazine publishers to envelope manufacturers. Most of their discussions are concerned with arcane mailing regulations, but one proposal is relevant to journalists and media companies.

As first reported by the blog Dead Tree Edition, run by an anonymous magazine publisher, MTAC’s periodicals working group has been considering a proposal for the Postal Service to sell magazine subscriptions directly to consumers in post offices and online. The proposal was first formulated at an MTAC meeting in May and could go into effect as early as next month, according to Edward Mayhew, a member of MTAC.

The plan is for the Postal Service to install posters with QR codes in post offices around the country. Customers could then scan the code with their phones and subscribe to different magazines. Alternatively, they could just subscribe to magazines online, through USPS did not respond to requests for comment.

Obviously, the proposal is just that—a proposal—and Mayhew cautioned that the details are subject to change. But he added that many publishers—including both magazines and newspapers—have shown interest in participating in the program. With both publishers and the Postal Service rapidly shrinking, they want to act to stanch the bleeding as quickly as possible. A trial program featuring 25-50 post offices could start as early as January, he explained.

Such a prediction may be optimistic. The Postal Service has not yet made any public announcements regarding the program, though Mayhew did not find this surprising. “You won’t hear it from them until they have a program in place,” he insisted.

He recalled that, twice during his 37-year tenure as a USPS employee, the Postal Service attempted to directly sell magazine subscriptions. In the 1980s, it began installing magazine racks in post offices, so that customers could pick up magazines, fill out the subscription cards inside, and mail them. But the experiment was soon scrapped, Mayhew explained, after some in the government began to worry that selling magazines was distracting from the Postal Service’s main mission of delivering the mail.

A few years later, the Postal Service began allowing employees to sign up for magazine subscriptions on their organizational intranet. Mayhew described it “as a perk for employees—you could go on the website and sign up for 300 different periodicals.” This service is no longer offered, he added, but it shows “that the mechanism is in place” for the Postal Service to sell magazine subscriptions online.

But why would the Postal Service want to get into the magazine subscription-selling business? The most obvious answer is that every magazine subscription is another piece of mail for the Postal Service to deliver. But according to Mayhew, periodicals actually make up “a shade under 4 percent of the total volume that goes through the postal service.” The bulk of mail delivered is…well, “bulk mail,” also known as standard mail, direct marketing, or (less kindly) spam.

What periodicals lack in volume, though, they make up for in influence. People want to receive periodicals, so they check their mail and read the spam. If magazines die, then people may not even bother to check their mailboxes. Internally, the Postal Service refers to periodicals as “the anchor in the mailbox.” Clearly, the Postal Service has an interest in making sure that periodicals stay in business and continue to sell print subscriptions.

Does this mean that the Postal Service will only let customers subscribe to the print versions of magazines? Mayhew was not sure. “It’s an open option right now,” he said, adding that the Postal Service is trying to embrace the digital future. In October, he noted, the Postal Service began allowing periodicals to count both print and digital subscribers when reporting their circulation numbers. It seems likely, but not certain, that the Postal Service will offer both print and digital magazine subscriptions.

Still, as magazines and newspapers slowly make the inevitable transition from print to digital, it remains to be seen what will happen to the Postal Service. In the short-term, though, the proposal to sell magazine subscriptions directly to consumers looks likely to end up benefiting everyone—magazines get more subscribers, journalists get more readers, consumers get another convenient way to subscribe to magazines, and the Postal Service ensures that people keep checking their mailboxes.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: ,