Newspaper people rarely write about newspapers, but perhaps it’s time to make an exception.

Louis DeJoy, the bull-like postmaster general appointed by Donald Trump to make the U.S. Postal Service function still more “like a business” — even though it’s not a business — has announced the latest round of punitive rate hikes and service cuts.

Unless common sense intervenes, by Aug. 29 — six weeks away — we could see a 5% increase in first class stamps, only a few months after the pandemic’s ravages.

Worse, there’s an 8% increase for delivering newspapers by mail, biting even harder because many small papers have cut carrier routes.

That you haven’t heard about this isn’t surprising. Except for the business press, there have been few newspaper stories — the very businesses whose print editions are in tatters.

The moment vividly recalls the 2013 legislative session, when Republican Gov. Paul LePage was on the warpath against reporters, and determined this form of punishment.

Democrats, who’d just recaptured House and Senate, quickly agreed to tax newspaper sales, after having been exempt since 1951.

In two-thirds of states with sales taxes, newspapers are still considered essential sources of public information — but not in Maine.

The erosion began in California in 1991, when the Democratic Legislature, peeved at editorials supporting legislative term limits, removed the newspaper exemption. The tax code isn’t supposed to be wielded as a political weapon by those in power, but there you have it.

In Maine, publishers’ responses were notably weak. They caved on the sales tax to avoid another LePage retaliation: his threat to scuttle public notices.

If a group of businesses won’t defend itself from unjustified taxes, it probably deserves its fate. But what about the public?

It’s not as if publishers distinguished themselves following the advent of online news. For a quarter century, they gave away news online while still charging for print subscriptions and newsstand sales.

That worked, after a fashion, until Google’s digital advertising took off and the bottom fell out of newspaper ad sales in 2007, just before the Great Recession threw the entire economy into turmoil.

Newspapers are finally charging for online views, but it may be too late; only national publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal seem to be making money, and even they haven’t released numbers.

The carnage is grim. Some 2,100 newspapers, mostly small, have closed, and newsroom employment has fallen — catastrophically — from 74,000 to 31,000, meaning there are now 58% fewer newspaper reporters than just 15 years ago.

True, some online jobs have been added, and all-digital sites do cover some important stories, but the number is comparatively tiny, considering the hollowing out of newsrooms. And local news has, all too often, become what one report called “a desert.”

If you think there’s much less news in your local paper, you’re right. The real question is what can be done; existing owners appear to have no coherent plan.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t kidding when he said, if forced to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Without the crucial reporting the print press has provided throughout American history — with some able assistance from broadcast, on occasion — government would be essentially unaccountable.

If you think you can’t trust your municipal, state or federal officials now, just wait until there’s no coverage at all. No amount of digital repackaging can help when no news is being reported.

The newspaper crisis has reached the point all alternatives must be considered. Employee and community ownership, non-profit foundations and wealthy Good Samaritans are all worth a shot.

I prefer the employee option, with a permanent trust — the fortunate situation of the British Guardian, thanks to long-ago foresight by an enlightened owner. But — whatever works.

In the meantime, we must stop kicking newspapers when they’ve down. Sales tax exemptions for periodicals should be restored, and Louis DeJoy must be reined in.

The postal service is the most trusted and popular of all government services, yet DeJoy — like other recent predecessors — seems to think his job is competing with FedEx and UPS, not delivering the mail.

That’s why you see postal trucks zipping around delivering Amazon packages on Sunday and holidays while, until recently, postmasters general kept trying to eliminate Saturday mail delivery.

Despite its ups and downs, Americans want and deserve first class mail delivery, something government can definitely provide.

And as endangered species, newspapers should get reprieves from punitive taxes and postal rates in exchange for getting their act together. The First Amendment only works when there’s a free press to support it.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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