Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An open letter to my local newspaper

by Don Keith
It is no revelation to even the most casual observer that rapid technological change has had a devastating effect on some traditional media.  Among the hardest hit is the local daily newspaper.  Many large cities no longer have a daily paper with many only publishing a few days a week.  Some towns have no traditional print newspaper at all.

This is clearly because consumers no longer want to get their news and opinion in a printed paper. Or at least not enough people so the publishers can charge advertisers enough for ads so they can make money at it. Still, as with my other favorite media whipping-boy, broadcast radio, it amazes me that those outlets seem hell-bent on hastening their own demise through dumb actions, poor customer service, or attempting to cut their way to prosperity. My local paper, The Birmingham News, is a prime example.

I received in the mail a prime example of this very thing this week.  It came from my town's former-daily-now-three-times-a-week newspaper, to which I still reluctantly subscribe for my own personal reasons, some of which are mentioned below.  The letter happily told me that on September 18 I would receive with my paper "a 100-page investment and Retirement Guide (sic)."  Well, whoop de doo!  

It went on to promise, "This is the first of up four (4) 'premium editions,' in addition to the premium Thanksgiving Day edition, that will be delivered with your Sunday newspaper throughout the year and applied to your subscription account."  Yep, they were sending the thing to me whether I wanted it or not and they were damn well going to charge me extra for it!

After touting in the letter what a fine book the investment guide would be, they get around to the dirty details of what it will cost me:  "$2.99 will be applied to your subscription account for the Investment and Retirement Guide and for each of the other premium editions; and $4.00 will be applied to your subscription account for the Thanksgiving Day edition.  Applicable sales tax will be added.  There will not be an additional charge to your credit/debit card or checking account for these premium edition charges.  However, since the charge is applied to your subscription account balance, it will shorten your paid-through date so the next charge comes about sooner."

Thank you very much sir!  May I have another kick in the teeth?

I had no choice.  I had to dash off a sarcastic missive to the paper's customer service department, which is almost certainly farmed out to some overseas entity.  Still, in an effort to let others know how goofy I think such a heavy-handed thing is--even if the money is not that much--I am presenting my open letter below, primarily for your entertainment.

I do this blog to discuss rapid technological change and its effect on media, society and my hobby of choice, amateur radio.  But I didn't say I was thrilled by every single one of those changes.

I'll let you know if I hear from anyone who speaks English and what they tell me.


Dear Customer Service at The Birmingham News:

I received a form letter from you in yesterday’s mail. It informed me about upcoming so-called “premium editions” of The Birmingham News that will be wafting my way and how those publications will ultimately affect my current subscription term for the printed newspaper.

So let me get this straight.  You will be throwing onto my driveway “up to four (4)” of these so-called “premium editions” during the year—publications I did not order nor necessarily desire to receive—whether I want them or not.  And because I will involuntarily receive these “premium editions” whether I want them or not it will shorten the term of my current subscription in order for me to pay for them.  Note that I definitely want to receive a Thursday Thanksgiving Day paper, which you mention as an example of a “premium edition,” and have done so ever since you decided to only go to the trouble to publish the paper three times a week but on days that do not include Thursday.  I believe, too, that I have thus far been able to do so at no additional charge or negative hit to my subscription term.  Now, though, it appears you are dubbing this T-day ad extravaganza as one of your “up to four (4)” so-called “premium editions,” and will be chopping off $4 worth of my subscription term in order to pay for that bundle of inserts that arrives with the turkey on the last Thursday in November.  Really?  You don't make enough money off that ten pounds of advertising material and have to charge me an additional $4 for the privilege of having to lug the thing up from the street while the bird is being basted?

I also understand from your form letter that even though I have not specifically ordered these fine “premium editions,” you intend to throw them in my driveway anyhow, and to proceed to lop off enough of the end of my subscription to the paper that I did specifically subscribe to in order to pay for these publications that I may or may not desire to receive.  Pretty presumptuous of you, I say.  For example, you have so far only informed me of the nature of one of these “premium editions.”  It is a tome dedicated to telling me how to invest in order to be in better shape financially when I retire.  Frankly, though I’m sure it is a wonderful book and, to some, well worth the $2.99 worth of subscription at the end of the term it will cost them, it is of no value to me at all.  I have already retired.  The die is cast.  There is little I can do to prepare for it since I’ve already done it.

Oh, maybe there is a bit of information, a morsel here or there that may be of use in trying to survive on Social Security and the investing I did before you blessed me with this particular “premium edition.”  I am simply another subscriber who entered into a subscription agreement with your company in good faith that you would toss me a paper three days a week and I’d pay you in negotiable funds for the service for the time period for which I bargained.  It seems to me that I would have some say-so in changes you unilaterally choose to make in that agreement.  Maybe I feel that I could find that very same investing and retirement advice on-line or in a book and really don’t care to receive, sight unseen except for your skimpy four bullet points in the form letter you sent me, the “premium edition” you insist on jettisoning into my yard.

I must also point out that at the same time, you are promising—dare I say, “threatening?”—to launch onto my acreage up to three (3) more of these “premium editions” throughout the year.  You don’t say if the “year” of which you speak is the balance of 2016, the time between now and the same date next year, or at odd, unpredictable intervals in the remainder of 2016 and all of calendar-year 2017.  Gosh knows if it is the first option above--four more "premium editions" with which I am to be blessed between now and New Year's Eve, then the cost may result in my already owing you a renewal.

There is also no mention of the subject matter of those promised/threatened “premium editions,” though you declare you'll so inform us in advance "in the paper," so I have no idea if I really want to see them arcing from carrier to homestead during that unspecified time period or not.  Let me just say right up front that if the future “premium editions” you plan cover subjects such as pruning azaleas, cooking lobster the low-fat way, easy calculations using basic algebra, the care and feeding of alpacas, wiring ones gazebo for 220 volts AC, teaching cats to swim, playing winning canasta, re-decorating recreational vehicle interiors, the Kardashians, logging for fun and profit, best routes to the beach, identifying the sex of various rodents, or how to obtain a business license in Hoboken, New Jersey, then you are wasting time, ink and trees in delivering such a publication to my little slice of North Shelby County paradise.  See, I have no more interest in those subjects than I do in planning for retirement.  They will be dispatched directly to the recycling container without even entering our abode.

But then, as I speculated above, it appears I have no vote in this particular election.  You’ve decided for me that I’ll unroll my paper and find your “premium edition” encased therein whether I want or need it or not.  And you will whack off the end of my subscription to pay for it, robbing funds from my credit card well before the time at which you and I previously agreed such a transaction would occur.

I don’t want to be mean-spirited, but allow me to speculate here.  Could it be that you have previously attempted to market such “premium editions” in the more traditional way, to both subscribers and potential advertisers.  That is, you came up with an idea you thought you could sell to both entities, printed up sales materials that guaranteed a certain number of reader eyeballs that you could promise advertisers, ran ads in your few remaining papers and amid all the clutter and jetsam on your horribly bloated web sites, and then sat back waiting for the dollars to roll in?  And could it be that this way failed to turn a profit?

So now, I fear that you have taken the position that you will still promise advertisers all those reader eyeballs but with a much better chance of actually delivering them since you will “sell” us subscribers the “premium edition” whether we want to buy it or not.  I will promise you one thing: if I am extorted into accepting that unwanted booklet and get my subscription abbreviated, I will not patronize any advertiser included therein.  Sorry to be so vindictive but I do not like to be forced to purchase anything I do not specifically want.  

Let me make a prediction here.  Many of the lingering faithful are hanging on by a thread when it comes to subscribing to your current three-day-a-week-except-four-the-week-of-Thanksgiving newspaper.  The editions are getting thinner and thinner.  Events that occur on one day are often not covered until three days later and even then lack crucial details that are almost certainly available before then. It appears, based on spelling, grammatical errors, and sentence structure, that you no longer employ line editors or proofreaders.  And I fear your posse of reporters is a fraction the size it once was.  Never mind photographers.  Your use of stock photos has increased exponentially.  I understand you have issued your reporters smart phones and most photos you use are taken that way.  

Practically any story worth reading has already appeared on that bloated mess of a web site of yours.  (I’d personally prefer reading it in the print edition because there are no blinking ads, irritating videos suddenly erupting in the middle of the story content and blaring loudly at me, colorful, dancing ads seizing the screen with no readily discernible way to shut them so I can see what I was attempting to read, or disembodied voices unexpectedly screaming at me as I attempt to peacefully peruse the story, leaving me unable to find a way to shut them up before they finish insulting my intelligence and numbing my anvil, stirrup and hammer.)  

Friday’s paper is now virtually a pamphlet.  Wednesday’s would be as well were it not for all those grocery store ads.  Ads that are, by the way, tossed for free—yes, for free!  Now THAT is what I call a “premium edition!”—into the driveways of my non-subscriber neighbors a day or two before they show up rolled up inside my paid-for Wednesday edition of your dwindling “newspaper.”  (May I confess that we have been guilty of walking over to the vacant for-sale residence next door on Mondays or Tuesdays to steal the ads and coupons from the driveway so my wife can plan her grocery shopping a day or two earlier than would be otherwise possible?  Apparently you don’t even have to be an actual human to receive the free grocery store ads and coupons, just a house with an address and a driveway into which the publication can be deposited.  I wonder if your advertisers know that.  But forget getting it free and early if you pay for a subscription.  Your carriers are admirably efficient and never accidentally throw us a free one on Monday or Tuesday, thus the need for our larceny.)

At any rate, would it be possible for me to opt out of this initial “premium edition” on preparing for retirement and leave my subscription term unchanged so that I can apply this admittedly small amount of money to actually surviving during retirement?  And could I similarly request that you give me that same option on future “premium editions” once I have had the opportunity to determine if its content—whatever it turns out to be—will ultimately be of any possible interest or assistance to me?

Please don’t assume you know what “premium” content I want and need to read and how much I will be willing to pay for it.  You may be wrong on both counts, for me as well as other current subscribers, and, in the process, give us just one more reason to no longer avail ourselves of not only your “premium editions” but your occasional “newspaper” as well. By the way, I wonder who decided to make this retirement guide your first effort in providing "premium editions" without permission to your subscribers.  I know what your subscriber demographic is and I'd venture to say that most of them fall into the same bucket as I do...well beyond PLANNING for retirement and doing what they have to do to SURVIVE it.  The hours are great.  The pay is terrible!

Oh, and if you are actually trying to get rid of us hangers-on so you don’t even have to go ahead with your plans to outsource your printing of a traditional newspaper, you are certainly doing a good job of that.

One more thing: a year or so ago, I noticed the charge for my subscription had unexpectedly gone up, but only after I saw the charge on my credit card statement.  I realize that our agreement allows you to pretty much do whatever you want to do, raise the price, make the paper fewer and fewer pages, cut the term short to pay for an unsolicited “premium edition,” and the like.  Still, in the interest of customer service, it seems you would have at least let your subscribers know about the increase rather than simply slapping it onto the automatic charge.  I felt strongly enough about it that I promptly dialed up your customer service line to see if that price increase was at all reversible.  The young lady with whom I spoke had obviously been fielding many such calls and was curt with me.  

“So do you want to cancel your subscription or not?” she asked.  I pictured her finger hovering over the “Delete” key on her keyboard.  At that time, I really just wanted to continue paying what I had been paying for a shrinking product that has other serious shortcomings.  I surrendered and told her that I would continue to subscribe.  I swear I believe from her tone that she was disappointed. 

Meanwhile, you will no longer allow me to subscribe and pay for more than three months at a time.  Could it be you do not want any long-term commitments to subscribers that you would either have to honor or refund when you inevitably deep-six The Birmingham News?  

This policy makes me quite suspicious that it is only a matter of a short time before I get one of your form letters informing me that the presses of The Birmingham News will soon be stilled.  That will be a sad day, but so long as you continue to heave the grocery store ads and coupons onto the lawn of the vacant house next door, I’ll still be getting the most valuable product remaining of what was once a proud journalistic effort in our town.


Donald Keith
Customer number XXXXXXXX