Johnson's World: USPS Reformed or Deformed?

Problems at the USPS are more complex than just the pre-funding mandate on retirement payments. Poor service, delivery problems, and decreasing mail volume also need to be part of USPS reform initiatives.

May 1, 2013
Steve Johnson10912079

In editorial writing there are three ways to get a reaction out of people.

The first is to employ a salacious title or graphic. What may have been the most popular story I ever wrote was titled “Victoria’s Other Secret” on the subject of using a variety of catalog formats to increase the open rate. Pretty dry stuff, but the mere mention of a lingerie purveyor was enough to guarantee strong readership.

The second method is to be a cheerleader, to tell your target audience just what they want to hear. “The Dead Tree Myth”, a story I wrote recently for the Inland Press Association (the national newspaper trade association) in defense of newspapers has been steadily republished by newspapers across the country. No surprise there.

The third way is to incite controversy, which is just what Johnson’s World did in the March issue of Quick Printing with “Going Postal in a FedEx World”.

Post Office: Good; Congress: Bad

How dare someone criticize the US Postal Service in a magazine for printers and mailers?! My hat is off to Johnson’s World readers; I did not receive a single death threat. Instead I heard well-reasoned arguments in defense of the postal service. The vitriol was reserved for the US Congress.

Everyone wanted me to know that Congress’s draconian pension requirements were the source of all Postal Service woes, and that without this requirement everything would be sunshine and roses down at the ol’ post office.

Everyone is wrong. I deliberately made no reference to the pension mandate in my column because I didn’t want to distract from the real problems.

I’m not questioning the gravity of the pre-funding mandate. I am pointing out that if it were repealed tomorrow, the USPS would still be in deep trouble, for two reasons.

The first is math. The simple fact is that once the retiree funding prepayment is removed, our postal service still loses billions of dollars each year from its operations and has done so since 2009.

Calculations are often presented for multiple year periods in order to make computations appear rosier. By reaching back to 2006, the year that the prefunding mandate went into force (and also the year mail volume peaked), we can create the illusion of a break-even. This is lying with statistics. Record losses from operations are increasing every year, even as mail volume is steadily decreasing.

The second reason is service. Last night in my mailbox there were two LL Bean catalogs, one for me and one properly addressed to my neighbor. It was a stupid, careless mistake on the part of the letter carrier and I won’t accept any excuses for it. Sloppy and ambivalent service is not the fault of Congress. It is a systemic disease within the culture of the Postal Service and its unions, and it is deadly.

Poor Service Strikes Again!

Even as I am writing this, a friend used text messaging to let me know that she received the postcard that I mailed last month while on vacation. Like my Christmas card story in my last column, a foreign country’s postal service was involved so we can’t pinpoint why it took so long to arrive. However, the fact remains that while I was away all of my crucial communications were trusted to Internet-based media.

My postcard and letter-writing habit is viewed by friends and business associates alike as a quaint and charming whimsy left over from a bygone era.

While we are all striving mightily (and I lead the pack) to persuade the public that printed mail is the most effective medium by which to transmit information (it’s true, after all), some mail person is delivering your catalog to the wrong house.

No matter what the final shape of postal reform, the United States Postal Service will have do to better than this.

Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL; a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at, or send direct feedback about this column via

Everyone is wrong. I deliberately made no reference to the pension mandate in my column because I didn’t want to distract from the real problems.