30 straight weeks and counting for Des Arc, AR, weekly

Charles Walls doesn’t have that much time on his hands. After retiring from a career in architecture and construction, he moved back to his hometown of Des Arc, AR, to help his mother, Dean Walls, now 94 with failing eyesight, who continues working at the family newspaper, the White River Journal, which was started by Charles’ grandfather in 1907.

Charles read one of my many columns advocating the use of flat trays (white tubs) with green lids for speedier newspaper delivery. He started using tubs in July 2015 without strapping, because the Journal had no strap or string-tying machine, and was unlikely to invest in one. He encountered a common postmaster objection that “you can’t do that.” After some emails with the U.S. Postal Service on the Journal’s behalf, they made the switch to tubs.

I warned him that, although delivery times would generally exceed that of sacked mail, nothing was foolproof in a Postal Service delivery system known for being consistently inconsistent. Experiencing just that after his tub shift began, Charles determined to start measuring that service through a tracking system of calling post offices and subscribers to confirm delivery dates. He publishes a weekly Tracking Chart, giving the USPS a weekly letter grade (ranging from A+ to F) and progressively having subscribers join in, realizing that paper delivery had actually improved drastically, and initiate their own weekly calls and email feedback.

Charles finds that most subscribers actually seem to enjoy participating in the delivery reporting project, (with only a very few unwilling to continue the weekly feedback for an extended length of time).

Tracked locations cover about 25 percent of the subscribers. “When there’s time to sample-call individuals in Little Rock/North Little Rock, there’s about 33 percent coverage,” he said.

Des Arc is 60 miles east of Little Rock, 90 miles west of Memphis, and lies 15 miles north of I-40.

It was reader complaints that drove the search for improvement in the first place. And he adopted the mantra often heard within the Postal Service: “What gets measured gets done.”

Little did he, or I, realize the journey of success he was about to embark on. There were the typical failures at first for this Thursday newspaper of 1,100 subscribers. Much of his mail flows through the Little Rock SCF to get to counties near and far. Memphis and its SCF are key to some other copies in Arkansas.

I spoke to Little Rock plant manager Michael Hart at the National Postal Forum in Anaheim, CA, in May 2015, about the problems of this small newspaper, and I asked for his help on its behalf. Charles took that and ran with it.

The key to success for the Journal was the detailed weekly “Tracking Chart” that is published weekly in the Journal, and a front-page block giving the overall “Tracking Summary” and where to refer to the chart in the paper. The 60 or so email updates to Hart and assistants in Little Rock no doubt helped, as well. His service has not only met but exceeded service standards, which USPS arbitrarily reduced from 1-2 days to 2-3 days within the SCF of origin January 2015.

RESULTS SUMMARY

Of 10 priority Arkansas locations with “Direct” tubs, six (Beebe, Cabot, Conway, Jacksonville, Lonoke and Ward) have had next-day delivery for 30 straight weeks. Griffithville and Stuttgart got this A+ delivery 29, Carlisle 28, and Searcy 27 of 30 weeks. Several other towns in the state have hit their marks 28, 27, or 25 weeks out of 30, even though in mixed tubs requiring the mail to be “worked” in the plant.

“We were informed by several postmasters awhile back that in an Arkansas District meeting of postmasters at the USPS plant in North Little Rock, that the plant supervisors specifically pointed out the White River Journal as an example of ‘how mailing of newspapers should be done … to ensure speediest delivery,’” Charles said.

Reports on a 31st-straight week were delayed by the Veteran’s Day holiday Nov. 11, but it appears that the newspaper was ready to chalk up equal successes that week. It’s not as surprising to me as it once was, because postmasters are evidently looking for his report card in the newspaper. And it appears that the Little Rock plant under Hart and his staff has come to support his efforts and move his papers on a timely basis. They should be celebrated.

For local/area delivery, nothing works like personal contact and feedback. He calls most of the post offices himself to confirm delivery.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

What lessons can publishers learn from Charles’ exhaustive efforts at tracking his mail delivery?

As time allows, encourage key subscribers in various non-DDU ZIPs to update you by email, mail, or phone with regular delivery tracking.

Find a contact at your Hub or SCF who will work with you and give you regular updates.

Print the “scorecard” of delivery in your newspaper in a prominent place if space and time permits. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as done in Des Arc, but should include key ZIPs important to your subscribers and advertisers.

HISTORICAL NEWSPAPER & TOWN

Dean Walls is carrying on a legacy with determination and love for the business—not to make money. The newspaper has a weak advertising market with just one grocery insert. But Des Arc has a storied past. It missed out on becoming the capital of Arkansas by only a close vote; The Butterfield Overland Mail route of horse-drawn coaches and steamboats ran through the town starting in September 1858. A 14-hour trip from Memphis prompted one local resident to proclaim “we are now a close neighbor of the Bluff City.” Steamboats on the White River just east of town made Des Arc a major port in the 1800s.

The Union took the town from the South during the Civil War, establishing a base in DeValls Bluff, further south on the White River. The troops tore down many homes in Des Arc to use the wood, cutting the population from 2,000 to 400 people. In more modern times, the only industry, a Van Heusen factory, closed. Population regrew to 2,000 but dropped to 1,717 as noted in the last census. Strangely, it is part of a split county seat with another in the same county.

Dean was honored with the Golden 60 award in 2012 by the Arkansas Press Association. She’d already worked 67 years at the time, having begun setting type by hand in 1945 at age 23. She’s in her 71st year, without a vacation. © Max Heath 2016

MAX HEATH, NNA postal chair, represents Landmark Community Newspapers, and is sponsored by Interlink Software. Email maxheath@lcni.com.