Meanwhile, publishers must decide how to deal with slower and less-consistent delivery. William Falk, editor-in-chief of The Week magazine, took the bold step of printing an editor’s letter addressing the problem in his February 3 issue. Of the magazine’s 535,000 subscribers, about 100,000 of them got a letter, in zip codes with the most complaints. In the note, Falk placed the blame for late deliveries directly on the postal service. “The Week magazine prints every Wednesday night at exactly the same time—every week, without fail,” the letter read. “We then pay a very substantial fee to have copies trucked to 70 postal distribution facilities around the country every Thursday morning. This is an investment The Week has made in order to speed delivery of your copy to a postal facility in your area.” According to the USPS’s delivery standards, the letter continued, readers should expect to receive their copies on Friday or Saturday, but that, “to our dismay, that consistent delivery has eroded….”

In an interview, Falk explained that he had heard from readers who, after getting their copies of The Week on Friday or Saturday for years, were now getting it on Monday or Tuesday, or even later. For a weekly magazine, one specifically designed to summarize and contextualize the previous week’s news, that delay makes a huge difference to the magazine’s relevance. “Saturday really is a good day for us to arrive for people, because we have cultural content that helps them plan their weekend… and it’s the chance to look back at the week that’s just occurred,” said Falk. “We don’t really know what we’ll do if they end Saturday delivery—we’ve talked about it, but we haven’t made a decision yet.”

One solution that some publishers at the summit said they were considering is to move their editorial deadline forward, to accommodate earlier postal service deadlines and slower, less-reliable delivery. The drawback to this option is obvious: Now that print magazines are competing for readers’ attention with constantly updated online content, adding more lead time to their delivery seems risky. Closing issues earlier also complicates transactions with advertisers, who like to be able to tinker with copy and placement until the last minute.

Another solution—one heavily discussed at the MPA event, which was sponsored in part by several alternative delivery services—is to opt out of the USPS and go for private delivery. Women’s Wear Daily, a time-sensitive fashion trade paper owned by Condé Nast, already offers hand delivery to its readers in New York City. But for other types of magazines, and readers in less densely populated parts of the country, alternate delivery services can be prohibitively expensive. Publishers at the summit also said they felt their subscribers wanted to get their magazines in their mailboxes, rather than tossed at the end of the driveway like a newspaper. By law, only the USPS can put mail in mailboxes.

Then there is digital delivery. Readers are already accustomed to going online for both short- and long-form magazine content, and sales of tablets and e-readers are soaring. Many magazines already sell PDF versions of their print issues to read on Kindles, Nooks, and iPads (Zinio, the largest service of its kind, currently has 5,500 clients, including CJR). More and more magazines are experimenting with digital sales through the Amazon Marketplace and Apple’s Newsstand. Why not stop delivering altogether?

The answer is that, for all their digital experimentation, magazines are nowhere near ready to abandon print. Online ads still bring in a fraction of the revenue print ads do, apps are still in the early stages of monetization, and digital-download versions are still a relatively small proportion of revenue. Magazine readers aren’t yet ready to lose their print copies, either. A 2010 study by the CMO Council found that 87 percent of people interested in reading magazines on tablets or e-readers still wanted a printed copy to accompany it; another survey conducted by the Harrison Group on behalf of Zinio and MEMS Technology showed that 75 percent of readers felt that digital content complements print content, and only 25 percent felt that digital could replace print.

True, those attitudes will likely shift with time. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which has allowed for digital editions in its audits since 2002, the number of magazines that request audits of their digital editions increased fourfold from 2007 to 2011, and about a third of the magazines the bureau audits now do so. But as of 2011, digital subscriptions still account for less than 1 percent of total circulation for all US magazines, according to the ABC.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner