Unaddressed Admail policies need third-party oversight

ÔÇ£How about that Canada Post, eh?ÔÇØ

That phrase is a curious way to start a column, let alone a conversation. But whenever two or more community newspaper publishers gather around a coffee urn, inevitably thatÔÇÖs the topic. Canada Post and its policies and its pricing and its service and its attitude to community newspapers is the topic.

ItÔÇÖs not surprising really. The Canadian postal service and community newspapers have worked together since before Confederation. For much of that time, community newspapers enjoyed a special status, receiving subsidized rates and free distribution zones. There was recognition that community newspapers knit their communities together, that they informed and educated citizens. There was a strong government mandate to ensure community newspapers reached their readers at fair prices and that no readers should be excluded solely because of high distribution costs.

All of that changed when governments lost their taste for long-term structural subsidies. In addition, governments got fed up with being dragged down into the quagmire of perpetual labour unrest that existed at the postal service. The solution was simple ÔÇô Canada Post is now a corporation with a mandate to operate efficiently, expand markets, and make a profit. The connection to government is now as thin as a thread.

Which is where our sectorÔÇÖs problems begin.

Since receiving corporate status, Canada Post has gone through a gradual process of changing its administrative practices, simplifying its services and, of course, raising its rates. Some of this it did willingly, some it did with considerable prodding. The mandate review of the mid-90s demonstrated how determined the corporation was to keep itself at a distance from government. The governmentÔÇÖs response to the mandate review ÔÇô one-and-a-half recommendations accepted out of a total of 31 ÔÇô demonstrated governmentÔÇÖs willingness to maintain that distance.

All of that is history, of course, but it affects us in fundamental ways.

The drive for corporate autonomy, protected within a quasi-monopolistic framework, makes it very difficult to effect meaningful change, especially if the change is seen as working against the interests of the corporation.

ThatÔÇÖs where we come in. Community newspapers are clients of Canada Post, yes, but they are also competitors. They deliver advertising flyers, a business that Canada Post wants a share of, a business that it once had a larger share of before the mandate review resulted in the withdrawal of the Economy Admail service.

Community newspapers, for their part, simply need Canada Post. There are relatively few markets in Canada where the operation of a carrier force is feasible. In smaller communities and rural areas, Canada Post is the sole solution. Almost 60 per cent of community newspapers publish from communities officially designated as rural by Canada Post. Many more publish in larger communities but distribute in rural areas.

The rules for community newspaper distribution through Canada Post arenÔÇÖt simple. Those that are addressed must use Publications Mail if they adhere to certain eligibility criteria. The key criteria is that there may be no more than 70 per cent of the publication devoted to advertising, including all inserts.

To put that in perspective, a 20-page tabloid with 60 per cent ad content in the main publication and a single eight-page flyer insert immediately runs afoul of the 70 per cent rule.

Unaddressed publications have even more rules to concern them. Unaddressed Admail is designed to deliver advertising messages to Canadian households. It is the only unaddressed service option available from Canada Post. One has to question why community newspapers are forced to distribute through a service designed solely for advertisers when a cleaner option would be to offer community newspaper distribution through Publicatio