I read two stories this weekend about legacy infrastructure in the dissemination of information and its crushing cost.
In The Washington Post, Patrick B. Pexton offered a behind the scenes look at the manpower and infrastructure involved in getting a printed newspaper delivered to “several hundred thousand” doorsteps by 6:00 AM, every morning, every day of the year. It is “one of the biggest home delivery operations in the country, and it remains crucial to The Washington Post.”
“At 2:45 a.m., two tractor-trailers pull in, carrying 50,000 newspapers from The Post’s
printing plant for this distribution center, one of 28 The Post has in the metropolitan area.” Springfield
Twenty eight distribution centers! That is a lot of real estate and expense. No wonder The Baltimore Sun is moving away from the printed paper!
How long before cost pressure force the Post to follow their lead?
In a way, it’s funny. The Post prides itself on delivering your paper by 6:00 AM. They even strive to do better than that.
“Honestly, the aim is more like 5:30 a.m. because carriers are increasingly faced with “empty driveway syndrome”; commuting times are so long that subscribers leave for work that early, and they want the paper before they go.”
Online that doesn’t even matter.
In The New York Times Randall Stross compares the travails of the USPS with that of the Pony Express, a contract mail carrier that was in and out of business in eighteen months thanks to the telegraph. Like the Pony Express, today’s postal service is swimming against the current tide of technological advancement.
“Now, 150 years later, the United States Postal Service is engaged in another race with technology, one it can’t possibly win. But because the service is a quasi-independent government agency, it continues to maintain the huge human and mechanical infrastructure that was assembled for a pre-Internet age.”
The postal service makes that newspaper distribution infrastructure look downright puny in comparison. The USPS is the “nation’s second-largest civilian employer, after Wal-Mart.”
“The service runs 215,625 vehicles, the world’s largest civilian fleet. Those vehicles traverse 1.25 billion miles annually and consume 399 million gallons of fuel. Its carriers serve 151 million homes, businesses and post office boxes.”
It’s likely to take a lot longer than eighteen months to wind that down, even a notch. It doesn’t help matters that the service is a quasi-independent governmental agency which basically means that it can’t make the hard decisions without meddling from the government.
“In 1861, it was easy to decommission the Pony Express, a technologically obsolete, privately owned delivery service. A century and a half later, we have a delivery service whose raison d’être is rapidly vanishing before our eyes. This one is owned by all of us, however, and we are paralyzed, unable to decide what to do.”