Everybody knows these are tough times for newspapers. But are they so tough a paper must change the terms of existing subscriptions?
The embattled Denver Post seems to think so.
Newspapers and magazines often change rates as subscriptions come up for renewal. Sometimes the rates go up if the publisher thinks demand will hold; sometimes they go down in order to boost circulation numbers and thus advertising rates, which count for more than subscription money.
But the Post isn’t waiting for renewals change the terms. It is going to shorten your subscription by a month or more unless you are willing to give up four “special” editions a year.
What’s more, those with subscription complaints not worked out with the circulation department are henceforth going to have to go to arbitration. That’s a tactic usually reserved for big corporations who want to settle contract disputes without having to wait for the slow-grinding court system.
In a highly unusual letter, Bill Reynolds, senior vice president for circulation and production, tells subscribers he wants to “remind” us of the paper’s subscription policies as well as to describe the new arbitration program.
The subscription is continuous, meaning it automatically renews at the end of the term. But subscribers may cancel or modify the subscription at any time. That sounds familiar. Then comes the kicker:
“Furthermore, all home delivery subscriptions will include the Thanksgiving edition, which will be charged an additional $4. In addition all home delivery subscriptions will include no more than three (3) other Special Editions annually, which will be charged to the subscriber’s account at either $3 or $4 each.”
Just when these editions will run or what they might concern wasn’t mentioned in the letter. But a circulation person said on the phone that the “specials” would include issues about the Broncos, business “and I forget the other.”
You are free to opt out, but it’s up to you. If you do nothing “your SUBSCRIPTION TERM will be shortened.” (Emphasis theirs).
For years the Post has been selling 48-week (instead of a full year) subscriptions to regulars like myself. Slightly weird, but not irrational.
Before getting through to a live circulation person I communicated with one of those telephone robots. It told me that my current 48-week subscription began last Oct. 5 — that coincides with my records — and was due for renewal on July 29.
Let’s see. The 48 weeks I thought I had signed up for, and paid for with a check, would expire Sept. 5. July 29 comes five weeks sooner. The human circulation guy later said “a month” would be removed. Close enough, with the rounding going to the newspaper’s benefit.
I told him I would opt out. At least I think I did. I didn’t get a confirming email.
It was a strategic move because the new system is going to drive the hapless carriers crazy. It won’t be easy for them to keep track of those who are supposed to get papers on Thanksgiving and the three other unspecified days, and those who aren’t. Maybe the carrier will just shrug and deliver the “Special Editions” to all the regulars.
If I’m wrong I will presumably get all my original 48 weeks minus four papers.
Question: Will advertisers be told how many subscribers opted out and will their ad rates be adjusted downward accordingly?
Circulation renewal is tricky, especial in a declining market, but there are other techniques to build income.
Consider Consumer Reports, which takes no advertising and relies on subscription money. It periodically asks you to buy raffle tickets and offers a new car or cash to the winner. Your odds of winning aren’t much better than in the lottery but many sign up just to help out the magazine. They realize you have to be imaginative if you take no ads.
In any case, Consumer Reports doesn’t shorten your subscription if you refuse to pay double, say, for the April and August editions.
The Post seems to be counting on the fact that many if not most subscribers will throw the letter away without realizing they have to opt out of, not into, the “special edition” deal.
But they must be expecting some kind of trouble. “It is always our intention to resolve any dispute with a simple call to customer care,” reads the letter. “However,some disputes are not immediately resolved. That is why we are instituting an arbitration program.”
Is that to discourage unhappy subscribers from going to court? That’s not an option I’ve ever considered — or heard of — in circulation disputes. It’s very hard to find a lawyer costing less than any publication I’ve ever subscribed to.
The designated arbitrators are the American Arbitration Association and an organization called JAMS.
The AAA! I like it! That’s where Chief Justice William H. Erickson, one of the most respected jurists in the state’s history, went to work when forced by law to retire at age 72 in 1996.
I’d get into a dispute with the Post just to have him settle the case. Alas, he is no longer with us.
By the way, you have to accept the arbitration deal or they will cut off your subscription and refund the balance “if there is one.”
Wouldn’t it have been simpler, and more honest, just to raise the annual subscription rate by $13 to $16?
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.