Service Standards changes last July cause additional delays for non-local mail copies

April 30, 2013

By Max Heath

Accelerated plant closures will create more disparity

The U.S. Postal Service last month announced that it would move up 55 plant consolidations scheduled for 2014 into 2013, creating many more changes in service standards that have bedeviled newspapers. That will bring the total number of plant consolidations to 166 by year-end, a recipe for disaster with so much change in one year.

Closings further complicate life for newspaper publishers, who find that each plant closure subjects a larger share of subscribers within their region or state to additional delays under so-called “Modern Service Standards” placed into effect July 2012.

The consolidations, resulting in partial or full closure of some processing plants serving even larger SCFs (Sectional Center Facilities) than ever before, are drastic actions in response to worsening finances of USPS.

 

The problems with plant consolidations are twofold

1. Newspapers are sent from a smaller, more efficient small-town plant with personnel who are familiar with the regular handling of the newspapers in its territory to a larger, less efficient urban plant, usually with less newspaper volume and no familiarity with your particular newspaper.

And that usually results in an overload of volume stacking up in an urban postal processing plant that can’t handle it effectively or on time. Often multiple plants exist in an urban area, and your newspapers may well be directed to the wrong facility, sit awhile, and perhaps find their way to the right building eventually.

2. The service standard changes are quite harmful, and “lawfully” so, in effect since last summer.

Instead of providing one-day service for mail entered and delivered within an SCF, it now gives one-day service only for mail entered at the SCF. And because the former SCF that served your newspaper is moving many—perhaps hundreds—of miles away, that is your new SCF.

It gets worse. The service standard for Periodicals going from one SCF to an adjoining SCF was changed to three days, and for copies going further across the country extends from four to nine days. Some postal people have mistakenly told newspapers that the service standard was nine days—period—the maximum anywhere in the contiguous 48 states—even when the complaint is local or in the next county. That’s plain wrong. But the reality is bad enough.

These changes were made because of the decline of First-Class letter mail to gain internal efficiencies by processing letters for a longer “window” of time at a distant plant rather than one closer to you. The problem is that it holds the rest of the mail classes “hostage” to changed standards because of First-Class problems. And as we are finding out, it is creating unhappy subscribers and loss of print subscribers.

In the final rule on service standard changes in the Federal Register May 25 of last year, the Postal Service cited research to conclude: “… the estimated losses (of mail volume) are acceptable when compared to the initiative’s likely benefits” (cost savings). Newspapers were likely not part of the calculus in the decision. For instance, USPS suggested that bill payments should be made “one to two days earlier than they do now.” But we know that a community newspaper does not have the luxury of “mailing earlier” for distant copies.

To see an interactive service standard color-coded map, enter this link in your web browser: https://ribbs.usps.gov/modernservicestandards/ssmaps/find_map.cfm. Click “Periodicals” button upper left, the first three digits of your ZIP code right center, and “Display Map” at lower left.

 

OVERNIGHT SERVICE KEPT FOR DELIVERY-UNIT ENTRY

The National Newspaper Association’s primary fight throughout many months of service-standard proposals, meetings, and revisions, was to protect the bread-and-butter community newspaper mail, those copies entered at the post offices of delivery within the primary market area of that newspaper. We saw the train wreck coming, but for the most part let magazines and their publishers argue the distant service issues to save our powder for NNA members’ key issue.

NNA won that fight. The final rule on service standards for the period from July 1, 2012 through Jan. 1, 2014, promises to “continue an overnight service standard for qualifying destination-entry Periodicals.” We see no valid reason why that would change, even in 2014, but we shall keep a watchful eye.

 

HOW CAN NEWSPAPERS BEST COPE WITH THESE CHANGES?

Exceptional Dispatch drops

to key delivery post offices

Newspapers should maximize the use of Exceptional Dispatch to drop at all post offices within reasonable driving distance, using their own transportation. “DDU” discounts are available for those drops thanks to a 2001 rules change that it took NNA 10 years to achieve. Request is by letter to your origin post office. E-mail me for a sample letter if needed. Neither pre-verification before dropping nor an 8125 Drop Shipment form is required under DMM 707.28.3.

Towns with copies in the range of 50-plus subscribers with carrier-route sortation are candidates. Papers may already have single-copy drops in those towns. If not, one could start single-copy sales to get more value for the trip. Some drops could be made by employees living in that town, some by truck coming back from a printing plant, others by paying small fees to commuter or bread truck driver, etc.

DDU drops don’t require a container, so you can drop there as bundles only, up to 40 pounds. And next-day delivery is promised.

In some cases, Highway Contract Route drivers going from one post office to another can make drops more cost-effectively, but no DDU discount is available on those carrier-routed copies.

Newspapers can no longer depend on a close-in plant to supply timely delivery when dropping within the SCF, and delivering to other post offices via that SCF. It was never the best idea, because most plants can’t turn papers around consistently in 24 hours.

 

5-digit/carrier route ‘Direct’ containers stay in old hub

For secondary coverage areas around your main area of interest to advertisers, such as adjoining counties, NNA has pushed hard to ensure that newspapers can have timely delivery of 5-digit and carrier-route containers through HCR Hubs, usually at the former SCF where sorting is being discontinued. USPS still needs a hub-and-spoke system to drop mail for HCR drivers delivering mail to post offices in the morning and returning with mail entered that day in the evening.

Speak with the plant managers of SCFs losing their processing to a “receiving” plant and ensure that these “direct” containers are “cross-docked,” or handed off in the old SCF or newly designated HUB near you to get timely delivery of such containers. There is no value to USPS or you to haul direct containers hundreds of miles and back unopened.

The remaining problem is with 3-digit or SCF “working” mail containers. Those, unfortunately, will go directly to the distant receiving plant, and lose delivery quality. Newspapers should minimize the copies in these containers. Some copies are there because of coding problems in CASS-certified software. Correct records lacking 9-digit ZIP to shift copies.

Improving the addresses will kick them into 5-digit or carrier-route containers. Some presort software allows creating a container below 24 pieces to make it a direct container at 23 pieces and below. NNA is also working on rule change to combine 5-Digit and carrier-route mail in trays to help increase volume and reduce container costs.

 

Move to mail tubs

instead of sacks, or e-subs

for distant delivery

For deliveries outside your primary and secondary markets, you are at the mercy of the new processing and network (truck trip) changes. NNA worked nearly five years to get USPS to allow newspapers to count electronic subscriptions on the annual Statement of Ownership. Everyone should be offering those to distant subscribers.

For those who still want print, like me, you need to use Flats Trays (tubs) as your only container. Get out of sacks if you want timely delivery. DMM 707.20.4 allows optional use of flats trays with green lids and pink tray tags. Don’t let postal personnel tell you otherwise. Supplies are plentiful. Trays are First-Class containers and processing people strongly prefer them.

And be sure you have a good postal presort software and are updating it for changes in plant routings that are required every 60-90 days. © Max Heath 2013

 Max Heath, NNA postal chair, is a postal consultant for Publishing Group of America (American Profile, Relish, Spry) and Landmark Community Newspapers, LLC. E-mail maxheath@lcni.com.

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