Monday, May 09, 2005

When people wonder about problems with the Times, what keeps getting left out of the discussion?

Consider this an addendum to the earlier entry if you'd like. This is something that Dallas brought to my attention two weeks ago (it's the long promised post, sorry for the delay, Dallas).
I'd mentioned the issue Dallas raised to a few members who were subscribers, like Dallas, to the New York Times. I started getting feedback and as more feedback came in from members, I realized that those who ridicule the "nonreaders" of a daily paper hadn't really focused on people. Maybe they had a poll or two on people who never picked up a daily paper.

But there's more than that going on. (The Times and every other newspaper should be aware of this. Although the smart ass comments, usually aimed as "Generations X & Y" really aren't coming from articles printed in newspaper.) I wanted to really work on compiling this but Dallas has been waiting (again, my apologies to Dallas) and it goes to a problem with the New York Times' panel's recommendation. So instead of holding it and continuing to work on it, we'll just (in the words of Kat) note that "it is what it is." (But thank yous to Dallas and every member who responded to e-mails on this topic as well as to Gina and Krista who twice posted this issue and a request for feedback here in their gina & krista round-robin.)

What did the panel overlook? What did some commentators (in magazines) overlook?

What always gets overlooked -- the readers.

Who's talking to the readers?

No one on the panel.

That's not a slam to the panel who did deal with readers' concerns. (I'm assuming, for instance, that Gail Collins supported exploring the e-mail issue because members have forwarded e-mails they sent to her.)

Circulation is a problem at every paper. The 151 members who are subscribers (as am I) to the New York Times were all asked, "Have you been surveyed?" No, they hadn't. Every now and then, they get an e-mail (as have I) asking you to participate in a survey.

???: So I click on the link thinking the paper wants my opinion on something but I'm taking to some poll that has nothing to do with the paper and I'm wondering how much money the paper makes off of people like me when it promotes its e-mail list.

Besides the 151 members that currently subscribe, we also heard from 301 (I'm lowballing because I don't want to count up the e-mails again -- it could be 315 -- math isn't my strong suit) members who used to subscribe.

Did the Times speak to them? No. No one ever e-mailed to ask, "Why did you drop your subscription?" (One paper did do that after the election. I had intended to research that and credit them for doing that but again, "it is what it is." If it helps, you can find it somewhere on Poynter because that's where I saw it months ago. I'm thinking it was either The Boston Globe or The Chicago Tribune -- but I'm sure I'm remembering wrong.)

The number of people who aren't reading a daily paper in print doesn't just include the oft-ridiculed group dubbed "Jon Stewart's Daily Show audience." It also includes people who just had enough. Just said, "No more." And who's talking to them?

Only 2 of the 301 (low figure) cancelled their subscriptions to the Times because of something that appeared in print. Citing "moral reasons," they cancelled their subscriptions out of solidarity with George, the reader who was outed by Daniel Okrent.

Cindy: I told my husband I just couldn't face the paper anymore after what they did to him.
They could do that to me, they could do it to my husband, they could do it to any reader.

Dan: I cancelled it because it was disgusting what Okrent did and the Times showed no desire to address the issue. As a reader, it offended me.

It bothered other members as well. But of the 299 (low figure) that cancelled and of the 72 of the 151 currently subscribing who are considering cancelling, one thing popped up repeatedly.

Want to know what that was? The Times should care. (As should other newspapers as well.)

Delivery problems. Which was what caused Dallas to raise the issue to begin with.

Dallas: I'm not subscribing to an evening paper.

Exactly. Where's the quality control at the Times on this?

No one's been surveyed that e-mailed this site. Which leads to current subscribers feeling like the Times is more than happy to take their money, but doesn't really care if you get the paper or not.

Frank: On Monday morning, I don't want to hear, "We'll credit your account." That's not doing me a damn bit of good. I wanted a paper. I wanted to read it. I don't want it at the house when I get home tired from working. I don't want a credit. I want what I'm paying for which is morning delivery of The New York Times.

Does the Times follow their circulation rates? Do they ever wonder why sometimes a store sells out and other times it doesn't? If so, maybe Rachel has the answer.

Rachel: When it's not there and it's time to go to work, I drive around hoping to find a Starbucks that has it so I can grab it before I head to work. I even stop at the gas stations that carry it. I can tell you that what I'm told is that if the paper isn't there when people are heading out, they don't sell out. If the paper comes in at seven something or at eight or later, they don't sell out. If the paper's there by six a.m., they sell out. I spoke to clerk after clerk about this when I got your e-mail.

Too bad Rachel's not getting paid by the Times, she appears to be doing more work than the circulation department.

Is the paper aware of this problem?

Lyle doesn't want "credit," he wants a paper "and at the end of the day, I've heard all the stories so it pisses me off to come home and see it on doorstep."

(Yazz echoed Lyle's comments. With stronger language.)

I have no idea if this is a distrubtion issue or a carrier issue. But it doesn't really matter much to the people paying for delivery. And the Times has never checked in with any of the members who are current subscribers or who used to subscribe.

Lori subscribes to The Christian Science Monitor now.

Lori: I know it will be in the mail box. Yes, I won't get it the day it's printed but I know it will be there and I can count on it. I got so sick of chasing down a copy of The New York Times at least twice a week because my paper woman couldn't seem to deliver it on time.

Again, it may not be the carrier's fault, it might be a distribution issue.

But Lori's left the Times, and home delivery, to go with The Christian Science Monitor even though it means she's seeing the paper after it's old news. But it's worth it to her because it arrives as promised.

People writing op-ed pieces in magazines want to make this a generation thing. It may very well be that. But if it is, it may have little to do with what joke Jon Stewart tells. Past generations grew up in cities and towns with more than one daily paper. The thought of an evening paper isn't strange to them. Maybe they're more patient?

But in this day and age when we can go online and find the paper that morning, the idea that people are supposed to wait and wait for delivery of something they're paying for isn't a game that younger readers are going to play.

Candice: When I cancelled my subscription, my mother thought I was being silly. She pointed out how many times she's waited over the years for the paper to arrive. No offense to Mom, but I don't stay at home all day. I'm not a homemaker. I work a ten hour day. I don't need this aggrevation. When I'd call to complain that the paper wasn't there and I'd ask what should be a basic question, I couldn't get a straight answer.

Candice's basic question? "What is normally delivery time? Don't give me a three hour range."

Again, if it's generational, you're looking at generations that have grown up with pizza being delivered in fifteen minutes or less of "it's free!"

If it's generational, it has to do with not being used to an "evening paper" and now having the opportunity, when the paper doesn't arrive on time, to go online and read what didn't get dropped off at your door.

Charlie: They want my money but they don't seem at all concerned if I get the paper or not. When I try to go through the phone system to complain, I'm routed through this automated maze that always takes me two calls to reach an actual person. Then I get, "Oh, we're sorry."
When it happens over and over, "sorry" doesn't cut it and you're not "sorry" or it wouldn't keep happening.

"Does the Times even care?" is the question Erika wanted answered.

Her delivery problems were steady a few years back for a period of two months. Each day, she had to complain. No one ever followed up by contacting her and asking if the situation had improved (it has but she wonders if it wasn't the fact that she started tipping her carrier two hundred dollars each Christmas).

We're focusing on the Times because that's the paper we focus on here. But there were a few members who noted that they didn't subscribe to the Times but, reading the request for feedback in the gina & krista round-robin, they wanted to weigh in. So let's be clear, it's not just the Times.

And although the majority of the members responding were out the door in the morning, not all were. Pat's a nurse who works the third shift.

Pat: When I get off, the sun's out, the school buses are running, you'd think my paper would be waiting on my porch for me. It rarely is. My ideal morning would be to come home, read the paper while I drank a cup of tea and ate some fruit. There are days when I'm waiting an hour after I've gotten home before the paper gets thrown on my porch. If it hasn't come after an hour, I usually go on to sleep unless I have errands and this really upsets me because long before I get home, the paper should be there waiting.

The problem's not in the way a human voice over the phone interacts with you (Dallas wanted it noted that all the people he's spoken to have been very nice and asked that Biancca be singled out). The problem's not with getting credit for the paper you didn't get. The problem is with getting the paper and receiving it in a timely fashion.

Again, it may be a distribution issue. Or it may be a carrier issue. But where is the Times' quality control on this?

Current subscribers and former subscribers were all asked, "Did anyone ever contact you as a follow up to your problem to see if it had been corrected?" Universally the response was no.
And, again, no one ever checked to begin with to see if there was a problem.

When delivery is part of your business, you need to be practicing some oversight.

Personally, I don't think it's a carrier issue. It's too widespread for that. (If it is a carrier issue, the Times needs to work on the hiring policies for their carriers.) It's not confined to one region. (There are even complaints from NYC.)

The panel considered a number of issues. But, whether they realize it or not, the paper's job goes beyond putting together an issue. And again, this isn't just the Times. (The Chicago Tribune was a paper cited quite often that also would benefit from the paper practicing some quality control over their distribution system.)

It's strikes me as strange that in an age when other business (grocery stores, retail, et al) follow up on a basic complaint with a phone call or letter that the Times is perfectly happy to hand out "credit" day in and day out without ever addressing the issue.

I don't call up (or use the online system) when I don't get the paper. I go up the street and buy it. It saves me the hassle of navigating the online system (which isn't as user friendly as they seem to think it is) or navigating the phone system. To me, my time is more valuable.

Susan noted that she doesn't complain. But her reason is she doesn't want to get her delivery person in trouble. Who knows nation wide this problem is?

I don't. I'm going by the problems members had. But the Times doesn't know anything about it at all. And if they want to argue that when complaints from one delivery area reach X, they look into it, they're mistaken if they think everyone's complaining to them. And they're mistaken if they think that's "quality control." It's not.

Rob brought up something that I hadn't thought of but it is a good point. Having subscribed to the Times for over ten years, he's surprised that no survey's ever been sent to him asking him about the quality of service. Reading his e-mail, I thought about the years I've been subscribing and how it is strange that month after month, year after year, the Times wants my money, but they never check in to see if I'm satisfied with the delivery system.

Jane e-mailed that last month she had a real problem with delivery.

Jane: It just wasn't my month, nothing went right. Including attempting to get breakfast at McDonalds. That morning, I was already on edge because the paper never arrived and I didn't want to go buy one in case it did, so I waited and waited until I had to get in the car and go. I went through the drive through to get breakfast. I didn't check the sack. I got to work and it's not what I ordered and I can't eat pork. I call up and speak to the manager on duty. He apologizes and says come back up and they'll fix it. I explain I'm at work now and can't leave.
He apologizes and tells me to ask for him the next time I'm in which I did. A week later, he calls to check and see if I've had anymore problems. I never get that from the Times. I don't get a paper? It's no skin off their nose. Which is why I tell myself now that the next month where I miss ten papers, I'm cancelling. I've had it.

The panel dealt with issue of content. But, other than the Okrent outing of "George," members had complaints about what made it into the paper (and what didn't) but they were thinking about cancelling because of it. And of the members who used to subscribe only 2 of (at least ) 301 cancelled because of something that made the paper (the outing of "George").

The panel was given a task and hopefully they addressed it to the best of their abililty. But if the Times wants to know how to increase circulation, how to keep subscribers or why some subscribers left, they're going to have to start touching base. They can do that with, as Rob suggested, a printed survey they send out to subscribers (inside the paper, Rob suggests, to save on postage). But right now, the newspaper industry is faced with falling circulation and it's not being addressed.

All the silly "jokes" about Gen-X or Gen-Y or The Daily Show aren't addressing why some people are bailing on papers and why some who are trying to hang on are considering bailing.
Yes, it's easy (and probably "fun") to crack jokes about The Daily Show and "apethetic generations." But before the next pundit cracks a joke, maybe someone needs to talk to people who would be reading a daily paper if they could count on it arriving? Maybe they need to talk to people who are subscribing but considering cancelling?

It's not as "fun" (or as easy) as just thinking up put downs, but it's a little more reality based.

At some point (probably in the near future), we'll be dealing with electronic editions. When that day comes, I'm sure there will still be problems with delivery and distribution (maybe a page doesn't load?). But we aren't there yet. And the Times wants to sell a print edition. It's their responsibilty to ensure quality control. It's not Rachel's job to go all over her neighborhood surveying clerks about what time the paper needs to arrive to sell out. It's not Dallas's job to try to explain to them the importance of the paper arriving in time to be a morning paper.

The Times, and other papers as well, needs to stop pushing their responsibilities off on subscribers and start doing the follow up that most business models would have told you was required years ago.

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