Last week, HBO’s John Oliver offered some insightful commentary on the state of newspapers. I think many missed the point, but it was actually a love letter to hard news print journalists.
In an open letter called Newspaper Association of America President & CEO David Chavern to John Oliver: Newspapers Need Solutions, Not Petty Insults and Stating the Obvious, Chavern writes:
More particularly, he spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out.
The fact is that we are in a transitional phase within the entire industry.
My reaction, based on years working in the newspapers industry, is that when you constantly throw spaghetti up on the ceiling to see what sticks, you wind up with a mess. Further, newspapers have been in a transitional phase for at least two decades.
People often tell me newspapers are dying. They are struggling, but not all the blame can be place on the internet. Some wounds are self-inflicted.
Here’s an example: Two weeks ago, I got motivated to support the local newspaper — a former employer — and decided to buy a digital subscription. My former colleagues — many still friends — do good work.
I tried for two weeks to buy a digital subscription, but the online payment mechanism was broke. I sent a note to Gannett’s customer service department and tried the online chat. Alas, nothing worked. Finally, I contacted my friends at the newspaper to get the problem solved. It still took a few days, but all seemed well.
Until my wife’s online access was interrupted. She’s been getting the Sunday paper for years with a separate account. Something got confused, though. Now we have a mess with credit cards and I suspect one day the paper may stop coming. There will be hell to pay.
This is not the fault of the local journalists that work hard for little audience and even smaller pay. It’s very aggravating to them when their organization poorly handles customers and circulation issues. I know.
In an effort to further sort things out, I called the subscription customer service number.
I struggled with a non-intuitive automated voice system. Finally, after entering information and going through voice prompts, I waited for five minutes. The customer service person was helpful and hopefully we’ve sorted the problem out.
And then I went and did something really dumb. I attempted to get a print subscription for my father. To do this, I would have had to cancel my current digital print subscription and eat $10. Sorry, no refunds. The company was unwilling to give me a $10 discount on the new subscription.
So, I declined. I can afford to eat the $10, but I shouldn’t have to. I’ve already been frustrated and inconvenienced with this business relationship.
This is why the local newspaper lost out on a new subscription. They wouldn’t refund $10. Mind you, the print subscription was $24 a month.
My point is this: Newspapers companies need to make it easier for customers to buy products or they will not survive. Gannett has undergone a lot of consolidation during the last 20 years. Circulation, copy editing, digital web production, printing, design and layout wire news editing are all outsourced to “centers of excellence” in other cities as far away as Louisville.
One company that is doing this is The Washington Post. About a month ago, I also subscribed. It was easy and hassle free. I got six months free because I’m a Amazon Prime member, then something like $9 a month after. One click and done.
Perhaps Gannett could learn something from Jeff Bezos.