Monday, June 27, 2011

Postal back-to-work relieves publishers, but they need to be resolute about alternative delivery

With the resumption of mail service tomorrow as the result of an imposed back-to-work order by Parliament, many publishers will be happy that their subscription copies can now be delivered again. But the industry simply can't settle back with a sigh of relief.
Even as it welcomes the imposed settlement through 2015, it needs to look at alternatives for delivery. (It saddens me to say so because, personally, I feel that a functioning postal system is one of those things that is a classic example of the "common good".)
The lockout and rotating strikes were largely the result of the management failure of Canada Post Corporation which bobbled months of negotiations and failed to make its case for modernization and automation. Of course the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) shares the responsibility, but it was defending the established and negotiated rights of its workers (as it should) and showed more appetite for negotiation and compromise than the suits right up to the passage of the legislation.
The lockout is a continuum of the way CPC has done business for some time now -- treating its small customers brusquely and communicating poorly with even major mailers. It was exemplified by the fact it locked out its workers, sat on its hands and essentially relied on the government to force its workers back.
We shouldn't fool ourselves that the post office thinks of magazine subs and the volumes of direct mail and renewals as being critical to their business. The famous quote from former CEO Moya Green (now running the Royal Mail in Britain) was that the magazine business was a "rounding error" for CPC.
Things are not likely to get better with the imposed settlement. The postal business has been permanently impaired by the stoppage (one estimate was that 1% of their lettermail and package business disappeared, never to return, with every day of the lockout).Which will require even more service cuts.
It seems likely that our current 5-day-a-week mail system won't continue much longer. There could be pressure to retain to-the-door delivery, but reduce it to three days a week, for instance.
Even those who have for years said they'd like to work with Canada Post to make it work better for magazines are now coming to the conclusion that the industry needs to do the research and the hard work that would go into developing a parallel or alternative delivery system. 
In 2006, a feasibility study was done for a group of larger industry companies by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and it recommended a test, but cost, complexity and timing precluded it. Rogers Publishing did a test on its own in 2007 for delivery of Maclean's in one market (Toronto) using private contractors who normally deliver daily newspapers. The results were good and showed that it was feasible, but to achieve the necessary savings, Rogers would have needed to shift significant volumes of its magazines to the newspapers' systems and it went no further.
The industry pinned its hopes on reforming its relationship with Canada Post. That hope seems to be fading and the urgency for an alternative increasing.
Any such alternative would be very complicated and won't happen overnight -- in fact it could take five or 10 years. It would involve a lot of collaborative hard work and research to devise something that served not only concentrated urban audiences and big circulations with heavier magazines but the far flung small town and rural readers upon which so much Canadian magazine publishing is based. Such an initiative will almost certainly need to involve the industry association, Magazines Canada.
It wouldn't be to the advantage of the larger publishers to go their own way, abandoning smaller magazines to their fate; it would have to be a "plan for all" that benefited magazines and readers. And, who knows, Canada Post may smarten up in the face of it. But I wouldn't bet your database on it.
It's not clear how much of any alternative would involve digital delivery, though a private or industry-run service might be created that made a weekly or monthly delivery of all printed, subscribed magazines to individual addresses. There are examples in the expedite industry of combining deliveries for many different shippers.
First, the hard work has to be done and the end of this postal disruption is a good time to start to make sure the Canadian magazine industry isn't caught flat-footed by the next one. 

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