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The doom of newspapers

In an uncharacteristic burst of giddy optimism, I posted yesterday about my confidence that The Baltimore Sun, marking its 175th anniversary this year, will survive in some form to its bicentennial.

A couple of comments from readers reminded me what will eventually kill the print newspaper.

It is not liberal bias—not that you can find much of that any longer in news pages, journalists having been so thoroughly buffaloed by conservatives over the past forty years that they have become shy even about publishing established fact.

It’s not supercilious editors deciding that they know what is best for readers and readers can just take their medicine and shut up.

It is not the Internet.

It is not even the passing of the last generation devoted to the print habit.

It is the crappy customer service.

Here’s a comment on that post from Eve: “Circulation - actually, the customer service aspect thereof - was the final straw for my subscription. My paper did not arrive before I left for work. When I called Circulation to complain, a truly needs-her-face-slapped-off-snotty woman told me that the paper is not late until 9 a.m. Oh, so the target market would be the retired and independently wealthy? At the time, I could get a copy from a nice man who stood in the early-morning cold in the center isle of Northern Parkway.”

When you subscribe to a print newspaper, you are buying a product, a manufactured thing. Then you discover that (a) you don’t know when you will receive it on any given day*, and (b) sometimes you will not get it at all. At most newspapers, you can call a number and press through a series of recorded options, and, in Eve’s case, get some snippy human being who tells you that you are not entitled to complain.

Then you give up.

This is known in the business. Several years ago, The Sun plunged into an ill-planned mega-route system so chaotic that the paper lost 10,000 subscribers. “Ten thousand readers!” Mike Waller, then the publisher, said, growling at the management committee. “You lose money, it’s just money, you can always make more money. But you lose TEN THOUSAND READERS and you’re never getting them back.”

To be fair, the processes of manufacturing and distributing tens and hundreds of thousands of individual newspapers are bewilderingly complex and difficult, a daily struggle for everyone involved. My own little part in the process is challenging enough, and it’s nothing in comparison to the challenges in printing and circulation.

But it is also true that American newspapers have been careless about customer service for years, always assuming that more readers will come along and that it will be easier to recruit new ones than satisfy the existing ones.

Now we see where that got us.

 

*Readers by the dozens have complained to me that if they don’t see the newspaper before they leave for work in the morning, they never look at it.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:12 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

You're singing to the choir.


First off, I hear where you are coming from Eve, regarding what you felt was disrespectful and shoddy treatment from The Sun's circulations department.

The one-and-only time I actually felt a need to contact said-department at 'The Sun' was when their online subscription pay-wall was about to come into effect. At that time, for the life of me, I could not find ANY instruction on the online paper's homepage on how to sign up as a new online subscriber. (I basically wanted to pay the 6-month roughly $50.00 fee to continue contributing, and participating in this very blog. Pretty simple stuff, no?)

Unfortunately, I too got a very dismissive, snarky women 'Sun' phone rep who said perfunctorily, "you'll just have to wait till Monday...... anything else? Talk about lousy phone-side manner. And the 'Sun's' mucky-mucks wonder why they're losing subscribers these days? Mercy.

I must say, speaking from my balmy Left Coast perspective out here in the glorious City of Angels (The Rose Parade is proceeding as I write this piece), I've been a fairly contented L.A. Times home delivery subscriber for eons now, and it's the rare occasion when I don't find my morning paper nestled up on my little cement porch before 6:00AM.

Actually, I reckon around 5:15 AM-ish I usually woken up by that familiar thud of the plastic-wrapped paper thwacked onto my doorstep, or clunked into my stuccoed porch wall. Even if I'm awakened, I'm lucky to be one of those fortunate folks who can almost immediately drift back to sleep again. (Being retired for roughly four years now, I can afford to sleep-in a tad.)

If on a rare morning the paper isn't delivered, or maybe one section is entirely missing, when I call up their circulations department, and actually get to talk w/ a real, live service rep, I receive a free (naturally) and complete replacement copy delivered to my door usually within an hour of my phone call. In my books, at any rate, the L.A. Times' home delivery service is top notch.

Aside from home delivery issues, I do have a few ongoing pet peeves re/ the general changing tenor and caliber of the L.A. Times. Recently, w/ some regularity, we've been getting some odd creasing and multiple fold-overs of pages which really inhibits ease of reading. I mean, ours (the reader) is not to decipher what's typed on the printed page? Dah!

Also, a number of sections are dramatically shrinking, in size (number of pages), as well as editorial content-wise. The reader is literally being faced w/ more and more full-double-page advertising spreads---anything from ads extolling the virtues of cashing in your 'disposable' gold jewelry, and silver baubles, to outrageous promos for the latest miracle breakthrough in lower back pain relief. (Right!)

I realize, not withstanding subscriber revenues, in looking at the newspaper industry's fiscal bottom-line, advertising sales are the sustaining lifeblood of any viable newspaper operation; be that hard copy, or online. But from the average hardcopy reader/ subscriber's standpoint, I'm not real happy w/ this sea of commercial-space-minimized-editorial-content developing scenario.

When a major paper runs the automobile and real estate ad pages in contiguous, jumbo sections, devoid of editorial copy, that's fine-and-dandy. But when we start to see, more and more, little isolated islands of news copy floating in a vast sea of adverts, you have to really question the basic tenor, mission, and integrity of the entire publication. I grant you, it's largely an almost no-win, Catch-22 scenario, as the enormous paradigm shift from hardcopy print, to online news reportage becomes manifest.

I'll be roughly 91 years of age, God willing, when The Baltimore Sun hopefully celebrates it's bicentennial in 2037. But more prescient matters consume us these days; like whether that Mayan* global armageddon will come to pass around next year's winter solstice in December, and who in-hades will represent the rather discombobulated GOP as a viable, potentially winnable candidate for the presidency.

Wow! Just think. This whole Nov. 2012 general election palaver might just be all for nought, if indeed, the doomsday Mayan prophesy for world destruction comes to pass. Just sayin'.

*Actually, I heard a neat NPR piece yesterday, where a few major, well-respected native Guatemalan Mayan shamans (don't squeeze the shaman) were interviewed regarding this whole fuss over the Mayan end-of-days-prediction for late next year. Basically they said it was all a bunch of sensationalistic bunkum, and that the auspicious date in question was merely a spiritual transition point into another phase of Mayan time, and had no relationship to the Gregorian, western concept, or calculation of linear calendar time. The world WILL NOT be ending, as we know it. Shaman says.

Whew! I'm glad that's been settled.

ALEX

A reader who stumbled across this blog today comments:

In my experience customer service in every area is incredibly poor in this country and has been ever since the “business types” took over absolutely everything.

Corporatism is killing this country and one of the many ways that it manifests itself is in lousy customer service.

A friend told me today that she knew of someone who was tired of dealing with call centers in India. She now asks to speak with an American--this is taking "buy American" to a whole new level. Same friend said she reached her boiling point when a person answering the phone in India for her U.S. airline informed her that "Philadelphia is not in Pennsylvania." Oh yeah?

Yes.

I gave up my Sun subscription years ago because my daily paper was delivered only three or four times a week at best. Calls and letters to the circulation department were a waste of time.

I continued to be billed after repeated attempts to cancel my subscription.

And I was an employee who wanted to read the paper at home and support it financially.

Such poor service has been endemic in the industry for decades.

So, in theory, online editions should eliminate that problem. But if circulation departments remain obstacles to subscribers, and if companies' servers remain inadequate for easy, consistent access (I'm not thinking of The Sun here), then readers will be driven away.

One more example of the disconnect between the print edition and the online Sun, if I may. I have noticed several times a print ad for "Reality Check" (one of my favorite blogs) long after it checked out. I know that the makeup crew just sticks this in to fill out the available space, but couldn't they be provided with a blog that is still kicking? It has occurred to me that perhaps they can't bring themselves to plug the puerile replacement, "TV Lust," which would be entirely understandable.

Apparently I am one of the lucky ones now. When I lived in Carroll County, I swore that the delivery system was designed to discourage subscriptions. Even though I had a box for the paper out at the end of my very long driveway, the delivery person insisted on throwing it in the middle of the lawn, usually in a puddle, or over a wall of snow so that it could not be retrieved until spring. I did as they apparently wanted and cancelled. Now that I am back in Baltimore City, my delivery person is excellent. Rarely is my paper not there when I get up at six, it is thrown in a convenient spot on my back porch as I requested, and it is doubled bagged when it rains.

After twenty years of home delivery, I cancelled my Sun paper subscription on April 29, 2009, the day of The Culling. The poor operator who took my call was somewhat mystified by my wrath, vainly attempting to steer me toward a deal on the Wednesday/Weekend special. I did end up apologizing to him for my inappropriate language.

When the paywall went up, I decided to buy a digital subscription, but had misgivings about submitting my credit card info. I inquired about alternative methods of payment and immediately received back a polite but firm email --"Dear Valued Reader, ..." -- stating that the digital service could only be paid by credit card. I offered to send a check through the mail for $49.99 to cover six months worth. No dice.

"We apologize for any inconvenience. If you have any more questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us."

I considered heading down to Calvert Street with a sack full of hard, cold cash but was fairly certain I would be met with the same response.

I quickly tapped out on my 15 free page views (those slide shows are killers) and the following month couldn't get my free views again. Friends who know about such things muttered advice to clear my cookies and change browsers...

Long story short -- I signed up with my credit card. But I signed with reservations.

I like my home delivery of the local paper. And the people I talk to when I have a question or problem are, so far, unfailingly polite. Also helpful. I can't say the same, alas, for Verizon. Bring back THE TELEPHONE COMPANY!!!

Laura Lee, I totally understand your reservations. I had a similar experience with Comcast years ago. When we first signed up for internet service, you had to provide a credit card. Having had experience with their billing for cable television, I wasn't about to hand over that number. They agreed to provide our internet service ONLY if I paid for a year in advance, which I did, reluctantly. However, they kept "forgetting" that we had prepaid and they sent our account to a very nasty collection agency in Texas. After many hours on the phone with Comcast I finally resolved the issue with the help of the Attorney General's office. I wish I could bill them for the lost hours of my life and the aggravation.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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