Off-topic: A sad day for me. Sad times ahead for the New York Times

A couple months back when I saw Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV on his book tour to promote Crush It!, he said that American companies would be differentiated in the coming years based on customer service. Perhaps this is what he meant.

I have been a life-long newspaper reader. Before I went it college, it was my local paper. My brother went straight for the sports and funnies (still does), and I went straight for the front page (still do).

When I went to college, that paper became the New York Times (I still had a subscription to my local paper sent to me by mail which delayed it by about five days). While my local paper was quite good, the Times was a different beast, opening my eyes to a much larger world around me. “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It was, and remains, the paper of record.

In college I was known – among other things – as the guy who walked around with a newspaper. My classmates were amazed that I read the paper every day. I was amazed that they didn’t. Throughout the years I have remained a newspaper reader. It is quite simply an integral part of my day, an irreplaceable connection to the larger world.

When I found out I was losing my job late last year, I looked at all of my expenses. A seven day daily delivery of the New York Times is approximately sixty dollars per month. After much deliberation, I decided I would have to reduce this expense.

I called the Times customer service number. I told them that I was a life-long reader but would be losing my job at the end of the year and asked if there were any promotional offers available that could lower my expense for a short time. The response surprised me. “No,” the person said simply. I told the person to reduce my subscription to a five day delivery – halving the cost to $30 per month – and said that I would be canceling my subscription at the end of the year when my job ended. “Thank you for calling the New York Times,” she said as we got off the phone.

Last week, as 2009 ended and my job came to a close, I called back. I told the person who answered that I was a home delivery subscriber and that I needed to cancel my subscription. However, not wanting to go too crazy – the newspaper is important to me after all - I said that I wanted to change to a Times Reader subscription. This is an electronic version of the paper that provides an easier reading environment compared to the web version. I was told I would have to be transferred. After a long-delay, I re-explained the situation to Patrick.

Unlike the previous people I had spoken to, Patrick was, indeed, a true customer service representative. He said that the Times would like to keep me as a home delivery subscriber and offered me 26 weeks at 50% off to continue my delivery. I said, “You know Patrick, that’s interesting because I asked for an offer like that I little while back and was told there were no offers available to me. At that time I was interested. At this time, I am not and want to cancel my subscription.”

Patrick was not easily dissuaded and made several other pitches. I politely declined them all. For me, it was a matter of principle. I had explained the situation previously, said that I would have to cancel my subscription, and received nothing. After declining the last offer Patrick said to me, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” I said no.“Thank you for calling the New York Times,” he said.

After I hung up the phone a surprising feeling came over me. I felt incredibly sad. I have been reading the newspaper my entire life. My entire life. The thought of no longer doing so – or I should say, no longer doing so in a physical form – seemed like a great loss. I am more than aware of the difficulties newspapers are facing. It seemed awful to think I was contributing to their demise. The thought occurred to me that if I went to subscribe in the future, the Times quite simply might not be there.

I called back. I should at least see the cost of the offers they were making I thought. If it wasn’t that much more than the Times Reader, I should certainly just do it rather than die on principle (and contribute to the Times' death). When I called back, “Treasure” answered. I explained the situation and said I wanted to hear what the costs were of the various offers Patrick had made. Treasure’s response surprised me. “I’m sorry but those were one-time, promotional offers and I see that you declined them. They are no longer available to you.” This was less than ten minutes after I had called. “Thanks and have a nice day,” I said (“See you on the unemployment line,” I thought). "Thank you for calling the New York Times," she said.

Think about this. I have been a life-long subscriber to the New York Times. In a short time, I went from paying $60 a month, to $30, to $12. Additionally, the $12 per month Times Reader includes no advertisements. None. I would be interested to see the long-term business model around that one. I should also add that I was unable to subscribe to the Times Reader during my telephone call with Customer Service but rather had to do so on-line (Note: My e-mail to the VP of Circulation regarding the Times' poor customer service has, as yet, received no response).

I fully support and believe in newspapers. It will be a very (very) sad day to see them go. That said, the end draws nigh. The worst part is to see papers like the New York Times not even put up a fight.

Sean P. Sullivan

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  1. Sean,

    I too am a newspaper guy. While the electronic media has begun the death spiral for print outlets, the strongest of them will survive. What I find is that we are witnessing a generation of people never reading,let alone buying, a newspaper, writing or even mailing a letter, reading a classic (unless they have to), and now their books are becoming e-books. While I am not a Luddite, I'll never find a Kindle to compare with a worn dog-eared book or magazine. I can't imagine flipping through my electronic novel and getting the same feeling I get now. Sorry to get off topic, but your story made me think.

  2. cityroute16, no apologies necessary. It is interesting to consider. Even something like the photographs of friends and family that I have on my fridge. When was the last time I had a physical picture made of something? I can't even remember. There are certain books I will always hold on to that have been particularly significant to me. I like seeing them in the bookcase. Strange to imagine finishing a book and "Poof!" back into the electronic ether it goes never to be seen again. Of course, I do have a stack of books in my back hallway I need to get rid of which would be nice if they would disappear. With music, I have gotten used to the idea of not having physical copies. Partly because CDs were never particularly physically appealing compared to records. Perhaps there will be a reading experience at some point that will compare to the physical copy of a newspaper or book but I haven't seen it so far.

  3. A good friend, whose son just finished high school, dropped this bomb on me. Apparently, the schools have stopped teaching cursive handwriting. Kids learn to type (sort of) and print. That's it. Do you get the feeling that we're going backward here?

  4. I read the NYT on-line several times a day. David Pogue's column (no relation) turned me on to the free "readability" application. You just click on the article you want to read, click the "readability" link on your bookmarks toolbar and it converts the article into easy-to-read text with no annoying ads - brilliant! I gave up reading paper newspapers a couple of years ago.

  5. Paul, WOW! That is a shocker.

    Kevin, I'll check out the free readability app. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. Not surprising. Their attitude is quite amazing. Not sure if it's an East Coast thing, or just a legacy of the Grey Lady. I subscribed for years but perceived a liberal bias in almost every column regardless of topic. Sad day, but you might be better off without the NYT. Good luck


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