When the news arrived last week that mail delivery might soon get cut back from six to five days a week, I felt a flicker of pain: The image of the mailman walking through the door of our office with several bundles of mail wrapped up in criss-crossed rubber bands has always been a moment of anticipation in our office.
In our early days that first stack of magazines and small parcels might include catalogs from a supplier (valuable to us who relied on that equipment) or 8 by 10 glossy photos carefully wrapped with cardboard backing. The stack of business envelopes contained not just bills to be paid and checks to be deposited, but also insertion orders for future ads and press releases that were the seeds of future issues.
The incoming and outgoing mail, in short, was the lifeblood of our business. In 1992, when U.S. 1 moved from the old farmhouse at the corner of Route 1 and Mapleton Road in Plainsboro to our present location on Roszel Road, just two doors from the Princeton Post Office, I calculated the cost savings that would be realized by the shorter trips to the post office.
But less than two years after that move we received a prescient letter from the head of the Princeton Macintosh Users Group. In the letter, printed July 6, 1994, Megan Peterson — whose day job was at Princeton University — first thanked us for including the PMUG meetings in our events listings. Then she gently needled us for a story we were undertaking on that new-fangled communication form known as E-mail. We had asked for reader comments, and failed to include an E-mail address as a means of response:
“Someone over there has no clue as to how important the Internet, on-line services, and E-mail has become to educational institutions, individuals, and particularly all the research institutions and corporations worldwide, let alone around Princeton. Some of us couldn’t get along without it.
“I can send messages to most of our membership in just a few minutes, instead of making dozens of phone calls. I just spoke to a recruiter looking for Macintosh technicians and referred him to an area on the Internet where hundreds of applicants and recruiters are posting listings. A good E-mail connection can actually save you time and money.”
U.S. 1 did not hop on the bandwagon immediately. Not until February 15, 1995, did our staff box finally list an E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
That electronic point of contact notwithstanding, snail mail was still turning our head every time it made its grand entrance. In October, 1995, I was so impressed by the volume of mail that came into our office six days out of every seven, and by how its content represented the scale and scope of our business, that I devoted a column to simply taking an inventory of what we got on one typical day. I grabbed the mail that came in one Saturday and counted 77 separate pieces, including — happily — only one bill.
That may have been close to the high water mark for the Postal Service, at least from our particular perspective.
Eventually the volume of snail mail began to decline. Last Friday, January 30, I grabbed the package left in our foyer in one hand, and pulled off the one rubber band that held it together. There were just 11 pieces of mail, including three press releases, one 1099 reporting payments by an advertiser to us during 2008, and one Form B187Q from the state Department of Labor, documenting unemployment benefits paid to three people who worked as deliverers for us at some point in the last 12 months but are now drawing unemployment. All of these pieces could have been sent quicker and cheaper electronically.
But two of the pieces were small treasures: The university’s Princeton Weekly Bulletin (which we value more in its printed form than we would online); and a carefully wrapped package that included a delicate replacement part for an electronic gadget. Try sending that by E-mail.
Meanwhile a blizzard of E-mail descends every day. We now have one 170-gigabyte hard drive devoted to E-mail, and only 70 gigs are free. On the day that our office received the 11 pieces of snail mail, I took in at least 32 messages at the address listed above. (The total included one “virtual postcard from a friend” — sorry, my friend, I deleted that one without opening it.) That was just a small fraction of the total received by our staff, since everyone has his or her separate address and the various departments — classifieds, art, events, etc. — have their own mailboxes, as well.
So now the Postal Service is hurting. Last week Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress for the power “to suspend delivery on the lightest delivery days,” possibly Tuesdays or Saturdays. Potter called it a “worst-case scenario” that would be implemented if other efforts do not produce enough savings or if mail volume decreases further.
One senator, Maine Republican Susan Collins, noted the obvious possibility of a self-fulfilling prophesy: If declining volume is one of the major contributors to the Postal Service’s deficit, then curtailing delivery from six to five days will only continue the downward “death spiral,” the senator said. “Many businesses, newspaper companies, and ultimately consumers, will be forced to look to other means, such as the Internet, for their just-in-time delivery, causing an even bigger drop in volume.”
We still believe that some things are best delivered in printed form, including this newspaper coming faithfully to your office every Wednesday.
Of course we can survive with one less mail delivery a week. But a “virtual postcard from a friend” will never bring the anticipation that accompanies a sealed envelope, especially one with a hand-written name and address.