Until this month, the United States Postal Service didn’t make many headlines. Now, Motherboard senior writer Aaron Gordon devotes an entire beat to the mail.
Gordon started covering the USPS after learning last year that mail trucks were catching on fire. His reporting eventually sparked an idea to launch The Mail, a weekly newsletter focusing on the USPS as a crucial component to American democracy, delivering both mail-in ballots during a pandemic and vital supplies and information that help hold society together.
The newsletter is free, and there is an option for printed zines to be mailed to paid subscribers. Content is a mix of historical context and current issues facing the institution.
We reached out to Gordon by email to find out more about The Mail’s goals, freemium model and what’s next.
How did the USPS become your beat?
Gordon: Last year, I filed a public records request with the USPS regarding their iconic Long Life Vehicles catching on fire. Around May, I got about 4,000 pages of documents back that resulted in this story. After publication, I heard from dozens of postal workers not only about the truck fires, but about other problems at the USPS too. It became immediately clear to me, given its importance in the upcoming election, that the USPS was woefully under-covered given its size and importance. So we decided to do something about that.
What are you hoping to achieve with The Mail?
Gordon: I suspect most people are not that different from me in that they only started paying attention to the post office relatively recently. We, as Americans, typically ignore the post office. Not to say we ignore postal workers or the services they provide, but as a political issue, the administration and laws governing the post office’s existence are hardly on anyone’s radar. But that’s not because everything is fine at the post office. Far from it. I hope The Mail helps people think about why this is and what they want the post office to be going forward, even after it delivers our ballots by Election Day.
What will you be keeping an eye on in the newsletter?
Gordon: The newsletter will be a mix of current events and historical context. I am a firm believer that we cannot understand anything that is currently happening without understanding how it came to be. History matters. I am a reporter, and I fully understand why we cannot include as much historical context in every article as I may think is warranted. The news moves fast and our job is to tell people what’s going on. That’s why I like the weekly newsletter format, selectively deployed. It gives time and space to step back and take a broader view about issues and institutions that warrant it. Hopefully, readers come away feeling a bit more knowledgeable about an institution that they interact with every single day.
How did you decide on the freemium model with the print zine for paying subscribers?
Gordon: The zine was something our Editor-in-Chief, Jason Koebler, has been looking to do for some time. Motherboard is VICE’s tech and science publication, so we do a lot of reporting about the internet, internet culture, those kinds of things. But we all grew up reading physical media such as zines as well as internet forums and whatnot. And this felt like a natural opportunity to a zine. We liked the dichotomy of sending a digital newsletter about the mail and a physical piece of paper about the internet.
How has Vice differentiated its coverage of threats to voting in the US?
Gordon: I don’t feel qualified to answer this question speaking for VICE. I just started working for Motherboard in January, so it’s my first election cycle with this group. But I will speak as someone who admired Motherboard for years before joining this team. My colleagues at Motherboard are second to none in covering digital security and hacking. This carries over to election security because they don’t treat it as a separate beat, but part of their full-time one. It is woven within their normal reporting. There are no boundaries in digital security. And, to my boss’s credit, when I floated the idea of a USPS newsletter, Jason immediately understood how this fit within their normal election security coverage even though the mail is an old technology.
What are some other related areas that you think journalists should be covering?
Gordon: I think journalists should be covering whatever area they feel like they have questions about but don’t know where to find the answers. I have a rule when investigating a new story/beat: If I can easily look up whatever information I’m after, then I should find something else. But if I have to start digging into archives or making calls, I’m probably onto something.