LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Even if a newspaper is filled with hard news, the U.S. Postal Service is checking to see whether it's droopy.
Under a rule that takes effect Sunday, if a flat piece of mail that's longer than 10 inches droops too much, it will cost more to mail in bulk. The change is because such mail can't be put through an automated flat sorter, and sorting by hand costs more.
That could affect many community newspapers, which drop off their editions – addressed to subscribers – for the post office to deliver. Magazines, envelopes and shopping circulars also come under the new rule.
The postal service is subjecting newspapers to a "droop test," to determine if they're fit for the machine sorter. The post office places the paper on a counter with a flat edge, with half of the item hanging from the edge. If it droops more than 3 inches, it fails. No bulk discount.
The non-discount rate will raise mailing costs from 5.9 cents per item to 9.9 cents, a 68 percent increase, or to 10.5 cents, a 78 percent hike, for newspapers without barcodes.
While losing the discount will cost publishers pennies per item, the percentage increase and potential troubles are significant, said Ron Wylie, general manager of the weekly Johnson County Graphic in Clarksville, Ark.
"I can see how this is going to cause newspapers a lot of problems," said Wylie, who mails about 400 papers from his circulation of 7,900. He said he wonders how much leeway the post office will grant from day to day.
"I did the test here at my desk to see how it measured up," he said. "I go about 2 7/8 inches. That was on a paper with three inserts." Without the advertising inserts, Wylie said he had a droopy paper.
Newspapers already put a lot of effort into meeting postal regulations, labeling with barcodes and ZIP-plus-four codes to speed sorting, said Max Heath, a postal consultant for the Publishing Group of America and the National Newspaper Association.
Heath said he hasn't found an answer yet on how frequently the post office will test a paper.
"The fact is, you can't just take a measurement one time and say you're no good," Heath said, since page counts vary from issue to issue. The U.S. Postal Service didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Some responses to the change mean spending more.
"Maybe you can use (a stiff) insert. If it's an advertising insert, it pays for itself. If it's not, it just makes the paper heavier and costs more to mail anyway," said Tres Williams of the Arkansas Press Association.
And Wylie said heavier newsprint that might droop less would cost more to use and more to mail. Heath said newspapers can also charge subscribers an additional $3 to $5 per year.
Heath said the National Newspaper Association persuaded the postal service to include a number of exceptions, which helped blunt the effect.
The discount remains for in-county delivery of papers that are labeled and dropped off at the post office that will deliver them. But out-of-county deliveries of the same publication in most cases will lose the discount. Also, newspapers and shopping circulars eligible for a high-density rate – those distributed to 90 percent of addresses in an area – are excepted from the droop rule, Heath said.