Friday, September 19, 2008

Support Your Local (Print) Newspaper: If You Dare

I'm a huge believer in print media's ability to rise to the competitive challenge of digital media – that is, I believe in the print industry's editorial capabilities. Business-wise, maybe not so much. If my experience this morning is any indication, I might have to start believing those doom-and-gloom "print is dying" forecasts. Here's why (condensed for the sake of not boring you with the entire 18 minute exchange).

I dial 1800-NYTIMES, enter the seven or so different numbers required to reach a live operator.

Me: I'm currently a 7-day-a-week home delivery subscriber; in fact, I've been a subscriber for about eight years. But $40 a month has gotten to be a problem. Any special promotions or anything?

NYT: No, I'm sorry.

Me: What about all those special prices I see? I recently saw one for about $25 a month. Isn't there any break for current, loyal, long-time subscribers.

NYT: No, those specials are only for new subscribers. But I'll be happy to pass along your comments to our customer service department.

Me: I can't understand why you reward newcomers but never reward current subscribers.

NYT: Sorry about that.

Me: So, if I were to cancel, I could call back in a week or two and get that special deal as a new subscriber?

NYT: No, you can't get that for 90 days after you cancel.

Me: What about if I got just the Sunday paper?

NYT: That's $18 a month. But I'd suggest you get the Saturday-Sunday service, which is only $22 a month, because right now there's a special for Sat-Sun subscribers who want to upgrade to 7-day-a-week service, at no additional charge for the first 12 weeks.

Me: Well, why don't you just switch me to Sat-Sun, then give me that upgrade?

NYT: Oh, our computer system won't let me do that all at once.

Me: OK, then I'll switch to Sat-Sun now, and call back in a day or two to upgrade.

NYT: Oh no, you'd have to wait longer than a few days to do that.

Me: Like a week or so?

NYT: Well, I can't guarantee that special will still be going on then.

Me: When does it end?

NYT: We don't have that kind of information.

Me: You know, for an industry in which newspapers are closing down every day and laying off thousands weekly, you folks certainly aren't making it easy for people who actually LOVE the newspaper to continue to support it.

NYT: (nervous titter) I can understand your frustration.

Me: You know, I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and last month I got a $28 renewal notice for one, and the blow-in card in the current issue had a rate of $15 for new subscribers, and so I called their 800 number, and they immediately offered me the $15 rate.

NYT: Well, I'll pass that along too.

I can't blame the patient and polite woman at the other end of the phone who is simply trying to earn a living in a presumably thankless job. So I thanked her, took the Sat-Sun deal, and hung up knowing I had knocked $18 at least off our monthly expenditures, even though the Saturday Times is rarely invigorating reading. But I'm holding out for that upgrade.

I love newspapers. I love the New York Times more than most people love their lattes in the morning. I want it in my hands, physically, every day. But I've decided I'll read it online on weekdays now. Which is too bad for a lot of reasons, but the one that saddens me most is that my 14-year-old already had developed that sit-down-with-the-newspaper habit (sports, weather, and national news), and the 10-year-old was right behind (science and food). They'll move online a lot more readily than I will, of course. But the question is, will they really? If the paper's not spread across the breakfast table, or on the kitchen counter after school, on perched on the hassock after dinner, will these kids – of the Nintendo, Wii, texting generation – ever seek it out, even online?

When I was in high school, anyone could pick up a free copy of the New York Times from the social studies room. You had to get there before third period though or they'd be gone. At home, my parents subscribed to the two local daily newspapers, one of which just announced it will probably be out of business by January.

That daily exposure to newspapers had a huge influence. I'm willing to concede that 30 years from now someone, somewhere, may well be saying that about their favorite news aggregation sites.

I suppose I hope so. I also hope that upgrade deal is still there when I call the Times next week. I hope the Times is still there.


Todd said...

First, I have to commend you for getting your kids interested in reading the paper. If it's a routine, probably they will keep up with it.

Second, maybe print's problems are problems of the business office, customer service. I worked for a small daily, and on Saturday's the business office, including circulation, would close at noon, all calls forwarded to editorial. It left those of us in editorial answering circulation calls -- usually missed papers -- and often ending up in long circular arguments with understandably frustrated customers; all we could do was offer to send them to the circulation department's voice mail. Why would you want to buy a paper that didn't get to you in the first place, and no one was able to get the paper to you?

I can't understand why an organization as big as the New York Times would be so inflexible with subscribers, especially when it is easy to go online and get the content for free or for a minimal cost.

Michelle O'Neil said...

I will be forwarding this to my friend who is a consultant for the newspaper industry.