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January 16, 2023

MPs hear concerns from news weeklies about proposal to end Saturday Royal Mail deliveries

Magazine delays are already a subject of complaint even before Royal Mail's proposals.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Royal Mail dropping Saturday deliveries could cost the publishing industry “millions of pounds in losses” to subscriptions, the House of Commons has heard.

Royal Mail has asked the Government to change its Universal Service Obligation (USO) so that it can stop Saturday letter deliveries, running a service on five days each week instead of the six it must currently.

News and current affairs magazine publishers have expressed worries about the proposal, fearing a widespread cancellation of subscriptions if their time-sensitive products are not delivered on a tight schedule. The likes of The Spectator, New Statesman, The Economist, The Week and Private Eye are among those with time-sensitive content whose subscribers may be most dissatisfied by long delays.

Labour MP Kate Osborne, who worked for Royal Mail for 25 years, told the Commons on Thursday that many letters sent in the UK, including current affairs magazines, are non-USO but are sent on the same network. She said an Ofcom review of users’ needs did not properly show the impact that the removal of Saturday deliveries would have on this type of information and business.

In a debate about the Royal Mail’s USO request, several MPs raised the potential collateral damage that magazines would face.

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The SNP’s Chris Stephens said: “The end of Saturday deliveries would have a harmful effect on other industries, such as the publishing sector… It would result in millions of pounds in losses from people cancelling magazine subscriptions, for example, and reduce advertising revenues.”

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Labour MP Seema Malhotra: “We are extremely concerned about that [USO request] and about the potential consequences, including for example for businesses with magazine subscriptions where Saturday deliveries form part of the delivery model.”

The minister responsible, Kevin Hollinrake, alleviated some of publishers’ concerns by telling the Commons the Government “currently have no plans to change the statutory minimum requirements of the universal postal service” and that any such change would have to be made through secondary legislation and agreed by Parliament.

“Our position has been very clear in my meetings with Royal Mail and [postal service regulator] Ofcom: we think that the six-day service should continue,” Hollinrake said, adding: “I have yet to receive any convincing case for a need to change to meet users’ needs and to ensure the financial sustainability of the universal postal service.”

But, if any change were to be considered, he said large business owners that might be impacted, such as magazine publishers, could “fully expect their needs to be taken into account” via surveys.

Some publishers, however, are already reporting dissatisfaction with the service they are their readers are getting from Royal Mail.

Conservative MP David Johnston said he has been receiving complaints from constituents since August 2020, “sometimes about things such as cards and magazine subscriptions not arriving for several weeks”.

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson responded in December to a reader whose postal subscription copies were routinely arriving late.

Nelson said: “We print The Spectator on Wednesdays and hand over to Royal Mail every Thursday morning – pay 1st class for next-day delivery. What then happens is a mystery. Royal Mail dysfunction [is] now posing a real threat to [the] weekly magazine industry.”

The Professional Publishers’ Association, which represents print and digital magazine brands in the UK, has previously argued that ditching Saturday deliveries would “seriously impact long-established weekly magazine titles, making it difficult to operate effectively without a Saturday delivery”.

“Many time-sensitive titles are mailed to land on a Friday or Saturday, and already have to build in an extra day due to Royal Mail processing delays.

“Publishers have previously stated that this could even lead to the closure of UK print editions and result in multi-million pound losses due to cancelled subscriptions and reduced advertising revenues.” The PPA also warned of potential bottlenecks and a rise in printing costs due to the reduction in capacity.

In a statement after Thursday’s debate, it said it would continue to engage with the Government, Royal Mail and Ofcom “to ensure that publishers are able to sustain and grow their successful subscription businesses”.

Royal Mail has said that its “future sustainability depends critically on urgent reform of the Universal Service”.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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