Something’s awry at the Seattle Times (and it’s not the newspaper itself)

Pearls Before Swine

Bad puns aside, I’m a fan of newspapers.  While the Internet definitely has them beat for breaking news and news magazines edge them out on in-depth reporting, no other media is as local as a city’s paper.  Which is why I decided, as a new resident of Seattle, to subscribe to the Seattle Times.

A trial run

Seattle Times and PI boxes  An empty Seattle P-I box next to the Seattle Times. Courtesy of a KOMO story which reported the boxes would be gone in March. They still linger downtown.

Before committing to a subscription, though, I decided to do a trial run.  Seattle was a two-newspaper town all the way up to March of this year, and I wanted to be sure that the newfound lack of competition wasn’t affecting quality.  On weekdays the paper has collapsed into three sections, just like my hometown Atlanta Journal-Constitution did this past year.  Yet as I read the Times, it still had just the content I was looking for: stories about local political controversies, the latest on the uninspiring Seahawks, and the quirky news that makes a local paper feel truly local.

So the quality of the paper I was buying each day from the newspaper box was exactly what I was looking for.  Yet, there was already a problem: the Times is supposed to cost $0.75, yet all of the newspaper boxes would only take $0.50 before opening up.  During hard times for a newspaper, losing 1/3 of the purchase price to old equipment is ridiculous.  No wonder they can’t make any money – they raised the price but can’t charge the new price because of old machines!

But it can’t be that bad.  After all, how many people really buy newspapers regularly on the street?  Surely the bulk of the 1.7 million readers (flaunted in unsold ad space in every issue of the Times) are subscribers to home delivery.  The Seattle Times must make money on their subscriptions.

Adventures in home delivery

At $5 per week, a home delivery subscription is a steal.  Not only does it cost less than the newsstand price (ignoring the discount afforded by old newspaper boxes), but they bring it right to you every morning.  What a deal.  My subscription was to start last Monday. 

Monday morning, I stepped out the door on the way to work and found a fresh copy of the Wall Street Journal on the doorstep. Now I have nothing against Rupert Murdoch, but I didn’t want a copy of the WSJ.  Deciding it must have been a sorting mistake, I let it slide.  Surely the right paper would arrive the next day.

Tuesday morning and another WSJ.  Deciding it was not mere coincidence, I called my apartment’s leasing office to find out why the papers were being mis-sorted.  They passed the buck to the newspapers themselves; apparently the paper delivery companies have keys to the building. So I got on the phone with the Times on Wednesday morning, after the Wall Street Journal arrived for the third day in a row.

The customer service rep seemed unconcerned as I explained what was going on (note to Times: increase training on issue ownership).  As if the company delivered the wrong paper all the time, he said it would be fixed tomorrow and offered me a credit for the days I missed.  Yet despite his nonchalance (or because of it?), Thursday morning was another WSJ.

So I called again.  This time I got a service rep who was more concerned.  Much more concerned.  She offered to get me the right paper delivered within 90 minutes (not necessary), gave me another credit for another missed day, and assured me the issue would be fixed the next morning.  Contrary to the style of the first service rep, this one seemed deeply disturbed by the mix-up (note to Times: ownership of the problem is good, but taking it to the point of hysterics is a bit overkill).

The customer service rep also (strangely) suggested that I call the Wall Street Journal to ask why they were delivering the paper to me.  Deciding to duck a potentially awkward conversation [

WSJ: Customer number?
Me: Don’t have one; I’ve been getting your paper even though I didn’t order it.
WSJ: Yes we have no record of your address. Do you want to start a subscription?
Me: No. But I’m still getting your paper.
WSJ: So what do you want us to do about it? We have no record of you ordering the paper and we definitely haven’t been dropping it off for free just for kicks. You sure you don’t want a subscription?
Me: No. I… umm… hrm.

], I put off a call to the WSJ and hoped for the best.

And lo and behold, Friday morning the right paper came.  Finally I had the local coverage I wanted to take with me on the bus.

The moral of the story

In the process of getting me my paper, the Times took a pay cut on the copies I bought outright, lost out on four days of subscription revenue, had to employ people in a call center to help me, and maybe even had to pay Mr. Murdoch for his paper. (I’m assuming the Times does Seattle-area delivery of the WSJ under contract.  Delivering an extra copy of the paper means someone paid for it somewhere.).  There’s definitely some room in there for improvement.

So the moral of the story is that as newspapers pore over their content looking for cost savings and beg advertisers to stay, they need to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the logistics half of the business to keep that revenue flowing smoothly.  I like the Seattle Times; I’d like it even better if they could stay in business for a while.

Your Moment of Zen

Now that I’ve finally been getting the Times, thought I’d share a few local story gems from the week:

*also spawned a pretty entertaining security notification at work