Tonda Rush

Tonda Rush

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News & Tech talked to National Newspaper Association General Counsel Tonda Rush this week about postal reform, a bureaucratic malfunction on PPP loans and other D.C. matters. “We're involved in a half dozen discussions on different kinds of legislation that would help newspapers,” says Rush.

Among those efforts, Rush and the National Newspaper Association are advocating for passage of the Postal Service Reform Act. Rush authored a posting on the act here. The specter of rising postal rates and concerns about declines in service are stressors to community weeklies, as many of them and some small dailies use USPS to deliver print. “All of them,” Rush said when asked what portion of NNA’s members worry about postal rates.
Community papers are the National Newspaper Association’s focus. NNA has about 1,800 newspapers. Rush operates out of Arlington, Virginia. The National Newspaper Association is headquartered in Florida.

The association has a postal and government relations team of up to 45 people that meets once a month. Rush, along with Matt Paxton, president and publisher of The News-Gazette (Lexington, Virginia), and Bradley Hill, president of Interlink, a mailing software company, represents the NNA on the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee. 

The postal reform bill is moving through committees in the House. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

“We've been working on something like this for about 13 years,” says Rush. “We've run into roadblocks each time, almost always from the Republican side of the aisle that has tended to see these issues as kind of a bailout for the postal service, which has always puzzled me because the postal service isn't a company, it's an agency,” she says.

“You don’t consider it a bailout when you spend money on the Pentagon,” she says.

The stars may be aligned this year, as “I think the opposition from the GOP side may be somewhat lessened,” she says, but the bill has heavy competition from the infrastructure bill and other issues on the Hill.  

The bill would do a number of things to shore up USPS’s financial stability, including moving some retirees to Medicare from another federal plan and addressing other issues involving benefits. It prevents USPS from establishing a separate system for package delivery, so the revenue benefits from the expected growth in parcel delivery will help stabilize the system for all, says Rush. Delivery vehicles may get funded in the infrastructure bill under discussion instead of under this legislation, says Rush, a boost for USPS.

“The bill does not give the kind of postage rates stability that we had hoped we would see out of this bill. We're facing, I'm afraid, significant postage rate increases. There had been a hope that Congress would say, look, in exchange for financial relief, we want you to go back and revisit your plans for postage increases. That deal was not struck, and it's not yet part of the legislation.”

USPS is expected to make an announcement on increases later this month.

On-time delivery

Language in the bill also addresses a big concern for community papers, which is whether the system gets papers into households on time, says Rush.

There have been major challenges with that all year, says Rush. “Probably more than a quarter of the periodicals in the mail stream have not been delivered on time,” she says.

Also in the bill is the rural newspaper system sustainability provision, addressing an antiquated law that restricts newspapers sending out sample copies to non-subscribers at a lower rate. The change would let within county newspapers increase their use of a sample copy allowance in current law from 10% of their annual within county distribution to 50%. It's a way to get subscribers back, many of whom were lost because of poor service over the past few years, says Rush.

“It was requested by one of our newspapers in Kentucky,” says Rush. “It’s our understanding that the postal service is not opposed to it,” says Rush.

PPP, vaccines

Other things on Rush’s plate or radar:

• PPP trouble. Congress in December authorized newspapers to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans on a location basis instead of being part of a larger company. A number of NNA members were eligible for a first loan under the old rules and should have been eligible for a second loan under the new rules, but the Small Business Administration, which administers the program, didn't have a process set up to allow these second ones to happen with the smaller newspaper groups, says Rush.

“We have been back and forth with them since March about setting up a central process,” says Rush. The day the process was authorized was the day SBA announced that there were no more PPP funds available, with exception of for certain banks. “This is frustrating beyond belief,” and has hit quite a few NNA papers, says Rush. She attributes the problem to a change of leadership at SBA and work load at the agency. Congress appropriating again on this is “a heavy lift,” she says. NNA is continuing to talk to people on the Hill about the issue, she says.

• COVID-19 vaccines and community papers. NNA is also engaged in trying to get the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to understand that reaching vaccine skeptics behooves the department to go to some of the community weeklies they're overlooking with their ad campaign, she says.

• Competition act. NNA is working with the News Media Alliance on the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021 to create space for journalism creators to be at the table with big social media platforms to work out a fair payment system for content, with an eye to what's going on in Australia and Europe on this score, says Rush. 

“There's been a concern about smaller media actually benefited from a bargaining process if it comes into place. We've been working closely with News Media Alliance to make sure that there's a voice to represent the smaller publishers, but you can't really get too focused on figuring out how the pie gets divided up until there's a pie.”

• The Future of Local News Act, reintroduced last week, as Poynter reported

• Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) telling members of America's Newspapers May 11 that she will seek about $2.3 billion worth of tax credits and grants for local newspapers and broadcasters as part of President Biden's infrastructure plan. “She's in a powerful place to try to introduce ideas like that. I think the question is going to be whether that can be considered infrastructure,” says Rush.