It's tough enough for weekly magazines to stay timely when TV and the web churn out news constantly. Now the Postal Service wants to eliminate Saturday deliveries, exacerbating the lag between many weeklies and their readers.
Many weekly magazines deliberately try to reach subscribers in time for the weekend, when there's more time for reading—and shopping trips that might wind up reflecting advertisers' suggestions. Losing Saturday would delay many copies until Monday, when the competition for time and attention is stiffer.
"We know that our readers value getting The Economist and reading it on the weekend," said Paul Rossi, managing director at The Economist Group, which gets 55% to 60% of subscriber copies to homes by Saturday . "There's a direct connection between renewing customers and delivery. So it's important to us."
The Week gets about 75% to 80% of subscriber copies to homes by Saturday , part of a "very definite strategy to reach people on the weekend," said Steven Kotok, the magazine's president. But that performance has been degrading lately anyway as the Postal Service makes other changes to its system. "Even without losing the sixth day, they're just seeing lots of problems," he said.
Not every weekly will be adversely affected. Some, like Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, come out during the week. And the celebrity weeklies Star and OK, which reach half their subscribers by Saturday , have enough "excess time" in their distribution schedules to absorb the loss of Saturday delivery without reaching many subscribers later, according to Dave Leckey, exec VP for consumer marketing at American Media, which owns those titles.
But many will have to react—or lose a step. Time magazine changed its schedule four years ago expressly to become a weekend read, and enough copies arrive on Saturdays that the Postal Service proposal would mean many subscribers don't see copies until Monday. "If the postal schedule changes, we will explore all options to maintain pre-weekend delivery," a Time staffer said.
Other magazines aren't waiting to see what Congress lets the Postal Service do. Bloomberg Businessweek has been developing an alternate delivery system since last year, when it began using newspaper carriers in Philadelphia.
Today newspaper carriers deliver some 200,000 of the magazine's roughly 900,000 subscriptions in markets including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, New York City, all of New Jersey and most of Connecticut.
"We're a newsweekly," said Bernie Schraml, department head of manufacturing and distribution at Bloomberg Businessweek. "The news is fresh and we want to get it to subscribers as soon as we can. So that presents a concern and that 's why we're delivering 200,000 by alternate delivery now."
"Our goal is to go up another 100,000 in 2012," Mr. Schraml added. "But if Saturday delivery is eliminated, the question I'll receive is , How fast and how much of the country can we implement?"
The remedies, however, have their own drawbacks. Delivery by newspaper carriers is easier in densely populated cities than rural areas. And some readers don't want their magazines that way. "It gets treated like a newspaper, thrown on the lawn because you don't have access to the mailbox," said Mr. Rossi, who tested newspaper delivery of The Economist for 25,000 customers in Virginia for two months last year. "You're subject to sprinkler systems and urinating dogs. You're really down to the skill and efficiency of the individual delivery person."
Nobody likes the most obvious option: making editorial deadlines earlier. "We've done some modeling," Mr. Rossi said. "We would probably have to have an editorial close of Tuesday in the U.K. You'd be sitting there trying to guess what would be the best cover for Saturday , which is an age."
Then there's the possibility of digital delivery to platforms like the iPad. That will probably work for a growing number of readers, but certainly not all of them. And many people still prefer reading print editions.
The MPA, the magazine industry association, has not taken a formal position on reducing mail delivery to five days, and agrees that the Postal Service needs to cut costs, but wants Congress to adopt a package of postal reforms that will ensure the service's long-term viability. "We believe our members will accept five-day delivery if it is part of a comprehensive package of cost-saving measures, and if publishers are given an adequate period of time—at least six months—to prepare and make the necessary adjustments," said Rita Cohen, senior VP for legislative and regulatory policy at the MPA, in an email. "In addition, for this change to be workable for publishers, the Postal Service must fix its current service-performance problems."
Weeklies may accept five-day delivery, but they won't be happy about it. "We're assuming Saturday is going away," said The Week's Mr. Kotok. "We're in the process of figuring out which bad option we want to pursue."