When a respected magazine's cover story cited a statistic, I used to assume the number had at least some connection to reality. Not any more -- not after reading Bloomberg Businessweek's recent piece on the U.S. Postal Service.
Here's the stat that really stumped me: "In the last quarter of 2010, junk revenue climbed 7.1 percent," with the added statement, "Unfortunately for the USPS, junk volume has since plateaued."
Nowhere does the article define "junk mail", though it uses the phrase liberally. It's certainly a term you won't find in any USPS reports.
"Junk mail" is a bit like "pornography": It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it. I think most people would agree that it's mail that is both unwanted and irrelevant to you -- something that goes directly into the recycling bin or garbage can.
Businessweek's definition of "junk mail", however, is apparently Standard-class mail -- all Standard-class mail. Standard's revenue in the last quarter of calendar year 2010 increased by the magic 7.1%, which was true of no other class or subclass of mail. It grew only 0.9% in the 1st Quarter of this year.
According to the magazine's unstated definition, your favorite catalog is junk mail. That Red Cross plea to help the folks in Joplin, MO? Junk. The reminder notice about your class reunion, the annual reports for your mutual funds, and that parcel with the item you ordered on the Web? All junk. A subscription solicitation for a certain weekly business-news magazine? Yep, Junk City, baby.
Here's another head-scratcher in the article: "The USPS has historically placed the interests of its unions first." That's news to those who have followed the Postal Service's at-times acrimonious relations with its unions. Yes, postal executives must try to appease the unions, but only because Congress has put the unions in such a strong bargaining position.
The article goes on to suggest that the recent labor contract with the APWU is just another union giveaway. But even APWU members who grumble about the contract's "eating your young" provisions have written to me acknowledging it was a brilliant, money-saving deal for the Postal Service.
One more complaint: I had to flip past a lot of junk pages for companies like Verizon, JPMorgan Chase, and Siemens to get to the article. Oops, I forgot: Businessweek doesn't call those "junk pages"; it calls them "advertising".