Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Streamlining the Postal Service, when a merger fails and ‘Who lost Ukraine?’

Steven Brill
May 13, 2014 05:00 UTC

U.S. postal service trucks sit parked at the post office in Del Mar, California

This piece has been updated with a postscript at the end.

1. Postal Service blues:

Last week’s report that the U.S. Postal Service lost another $1.9 billion in the last financial quarter made me yearn for a story detailing the cost constraints afflicting this largest and most hidebound of government services. Everything from union restrictions, to legacy pension obligations, to congressional pressure that keeps even the smallest rural post office not only open but open on Saturdays, to lobbyist strong-arming that keeps the service from using its 32,000 retail footprints to offer other services.

Here’s the way for a reporter to write this: Completely reimagine the Postal Service by supposing it was sold to a private company. In fact, suppose the uber-opposite of a government agency — Amazon — bought it.

What would the real estate be worth if a more efficient company, freed from congressional oversight, bought the agency and slimmed down its holdings, cashing in on some of the premium properties scattered through every town, while using those that remain to offer all kinds of additional retail services?

What would Amazon’s Jeff Bezos do with what the Postal Service’s website says is its $47 billion payroll, not to mention its 211,000 vehicles?

What efficiencies could be achieved by radically streamlined operations? What would that look like? Who would be the victims, from among its 626,000 employees to people who still depend on delivery of 158 billion pieces of snail mail processed annually? How could the government require in the sales contract that some of this collateral damage be limited?

Bezos and the Post, America’s worst-run agency, and who’s paying Dennis Rodman?

Steven Brill
Jan 14, 2014 12:28 UTC

1. Bezos and the Washington Post: A nothingburger?

It has now been more than six months since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his deal to buy the Washington Post. It’s been more than four months since the transaction closed and Bezos was legally in charge. But so far nothing seems to have changed. The paper still seems to be in a defensive crouch rather than back on the offense, fueled by Bezos’s promise to invest both his money and his brain in the enterprise and launch a bunch of think-outside-the-box initiatives.

For example, Ezra Klein, the maestro of the Post’s Wonkblog, is reported to be about to leave because Bezos and Washington Post executives turned down his proposal to start an ambitious offshoot of his widely-followed domestic policy blog. Without looking at Klein’s business plan it’s impossible to know if their decision makes sense, but the situation is eerily similar to when the prior ownership of the Post turned down the pitch by then-star-reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei to start something called Politico — which they then took to rival media company Allbritton Communications.

Over the weekend the New York Times announced  that it has beefed up its already-strong China team by hiring the award-winning reporter whose pending story about ties between China’s richest man and the country’s rulers was held or killed (depending on whose account you believe) by Bloomberg News, after which the reporter abruptly left the company. The moment he became available it seemed to me that Bezos could have sent a clear and relatively inexpensive signal that the Post was back in the game by snagging him.

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