Trying to Subscribe to Newspapers (aka Death of a Dinosaur)

Much has been written about the plight of the traditional newspaper in our time. I won’t add to that pile here. Only because this is a story about how I intend to subscribe to a newspaper, but can’t seem to find a way to do so.

I’m a happy newspaper reader by most counts. I’ve been a long-time subscriber to the Sunday edition of the Belleville News Democrat. I have had nothing but fantastic experiences with the BND.

I’ve been an on-and-off subscriber to the Wall Street Journal. When I was initiating my current subscription, I started receiving it in the mail. My mail is delivered between 3 and 5 each afternoon. What good is the WSJ, delivered as the markets close each day? It only took a tweet and a few emails, and the circulation team at the WSJ was able to work with the local distributor to ensure I was added to a morning delivery route and had a paper on my doorstep at 5:30 each morning when I came downstairs to read and eat breakfast.

Contrast that with my experience trying to subscribe to my long-suffering local paper, our local edition of Lee Enterprises’ Suburban Journals in the St. Louis market.

A few years ago, our local paper became “subscription only”. I’ll admit – since they did it, I thought it was a stupid idea. You’re having a hard time cutting it in the economy, so you tell us you’re not going to deliver your free carrier for tons of local ads with outdated local news unless I pay you? So we sat it out.

Until this year, when our son was selected to be featured in a series of articles about local students starting kindergarten. On August 13, we paid the $19.99 for a one year subscription. Granted, that’s $20 for just 52 weekly (Thursday) papers. It already feels like we’re being worked over for the news, but we were willing to take it in order to get copies of the articles about our son.

Weeks passed… no paper.

More weeks passed… no paper.

I tried on three occasions to call the circulation department, to no avail, because their hours are planned so that no reasonable, working person trying to raise a family could ever have a hope of calling and talking to a real person during business hours.

Finally, on September 26, I tweeted.

Which led to a direct message. Which led to an email.

On the same day, the person at the other end of the tweet connected me with Dave of the local distribution service, who called me and politely acknowledged our issue and assured me we would start to see our paper right away. He followed up with an email confirming the conversation:

Michael we spoke on the phone just a little while ago about you delivery issues and I wanted to send you my email address in case you have any further problems.

I replied, thanking him.

More weeks have passed… no paper.

So today, nearly a full month later again, I emailed Dave and the person on the other end of the original tweet.

I know it’s now been nearly a month since we spoke about our subscription which we initiated with a $19.99 charge on our [credit card] on AUGUST 13. And despite the assurance that we would start receiving the paper, we still have yet to receive a paper other than the last two Saturdays when we received not a paper but the free “here’s a sample of the coupons and ads” throwaway.

I think I’ve come to understand why the newspaper is a dying industry.

I’ve had the pleasure to meet and collaborate with a lot of the content side of the news industry – the journalists and the content creators – in recent years. I consider Nicole Hollway of the St. Louis Beacon a close friend and respected peer. I’ve developed a good relationship with Joy Mayer at Mizzou. I’ve long had a friendship, nurtured years ago in Scouting, with Dan McDonough at Elauwit Media.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I was pleased to be part of an industry forum on measuring engagement in the news at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou last year. The content side of the business is full of fantastic people who work hard to deliver the news that matters, particularly in the local media.

But if the business side of the house can’t keep the wheels on the cart, it’s going to end up in the ditch before too long.

How hard is it to turn on a subscription to a newspaper in 2011? It was easy to bill my credit card the same day for the subscription. Have we come so far from the days of a neighbor kid pleased to ride his bike around the neighborhood in the morning to bring home a little extra cash, in order to ensure good, timely news on our doorsteps?

Or, like the rest of America, should I give up on the printed paper altogether and wait to see the local news when it hits the online world?

For now, I’ll stay a loyal subscriber where I am – the Wall Street Journal serves me well each morning, and the Belleville News Democrat on the weekends. I’d love to see what’s being delivered for our local news, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can ever actually deliver a paper. I have a lot of good friends in journalism, and a lot of good clients in the media business. They work hard and do a good job. But in this critical moment in the history of their news, the mis-steps add up, and they’ll need to work hard on minimizing them to survive into another generation.

Update, 10/26/2011:

A quick update: After tweeting this entry and a couple of emails yesterday, I received confirmation that I was set to go, and I DID receive our first paper this morning. Thanks to those who finally made this happen. Hopefully subscribing is faster and easier for others!

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