When newspapers don’t care about their customers

Updated with comments below

Updated at 5:24 Monday: Bruce posted this on Facebook: “So it’s now 5:11 PM on Monday and no one from the News & Record has tried to contact me. Thanks! I can keep this up as long as it takes. (My comment: a few News & Record staffers said the paper tried to contact Bruce, but — wait for it — the phone number they had was out of service.)

Updated later Monday night: Jeff Gauger, publisher of the paper, apologized in a comment on the FB page and said a paper rep talked with Wiley about the problems. Our goal is flawless delivery. We of course will credit your account for your missed deliveries. We will credit your account for an additional 13 Sundays (or three months) as recompense for the frustration and irritation we have caused. Also, we will quickly provide technical assistance and coaching to give you easy, uninterrupted access to the News & Record’s digital editions. Again, I am sorry.

 

 

These days, people tend to know what they’re going to get when they subscribe to a newspaper. They may get irritated by the editorial pages, bothered by the tone and amount of news coverage, or left wanting by the lack of sports coverage for their favorite teams. Still, there’s enough value in the paper that they want it.

What people don’t expect — and which is hastening the demise of the business — is poor customer service. What do you do when people try to give you money, and you don’t seem to want it?

Enter Bruce Wiley, a Facebook friend of mine who lives in High Point. The News & Record — my former paper — sent him a subscription offer in the mail, and he decided he wanted to start Sunday-only home delivery. He called the paper, and that’s when his problems began.

“Having been a previous subscriber, they had my information in their system, including my old landline number. I told them that number was no longer in service and gave them my cell phone number to update their records. I also instructed the young lady to start delivery on July 12th since we would not be home July 4th weekend.

“All is good at this point. We returned home on Monday, July 13, and there is is no paper delivered. I called customer service, gave them my cell phone number when asked and they say they don’t have that number in their system. Once they find my records, they inform me that the paper is not supposed to start till July 19th. I give them my cell phone number once again to update their records. Our paper is delivered on the 19th.

“On July 17th, I call Customer Service to find out what steps can be taken to link my paid account with online access, as advertised. They still don’t have my cell phone number in their records, I’m still associated with a landline number that is not in service. Again, I give them my number. The person on the phone has no idea how to help me with online access. I ask to speak to a supervisor. I am informed, at 2 p.m. on a Friday, that there is no supervisor to speak with. The young lady asks me for my name and number, which I give again. She assures me someone will be in touch.

“So, 9 days later, no call.”

“On top of that, no paper delivered today (July 26). I called and the only options are to use the N&R automated system. I am prompted for my phone number, so I enter my cell phone. After entering my house number, the system tells me there is no such subscription. I press zero to speak with someone and the recording politely tell me the office is closed and if I want to talk to someone, I have to call back on Monday.

“I actually have to call them again because there are no options to go back thru the menu. So I call again, go thru the automated process, use the out of service landline number and guess what, they say I do have an account. When I use the system to tell them that I did not get a paper delivered, the response is that we’re sorry, we’ll credit your account and goodbye. No option of getting a paper delivered today. Oh, and I still don’t have online access.”

That’s the end of his account. Here’s one translation of his last three sentences: He cares enough about the paper to pay for it and then call to get it when it isn’t delivered. But the newspaper office doesn’t care enough about him to get it to him.

He tagged four News & Record editors, including the publisher. None of them commented on his post so far, although 18 other people have, at this writing. Based on those comments, Bruce’s experience isn’t uncommon. And it’s not just Greensboro; several of the commenters said they have the same problem with the News & Observer in Raleigh.

My guess is that this is a nationwide newspaper problem.

Twenty years ago, a newspaper marketer told me that subscribers don’t cancel because of the content or opinion of the newspaper. They quit because of service problems. Twenty years ago, we worked hard to improve our service, grow circulation and stop cancellations. Customer service folks at the paper – even department managers and reporters – would deliver newspapers to people if the district managers were out of the office.

Now, most of — maybe all — of the customer service folks in Greensboro have been laid off, and calls are directed to a centralized BH Media customer service operation in Texas. I have heard stories that the operators in Texas don’t know how to help customers with the e-edition or with the 1808 magazine. Based on the comments on Bruce’s Facebook post, they have difficulty with newspaper delivery, too.

Is this fixable? Of course, it is.  It requires focus, accountability and people who know the product and market. As newspapers consolidate and outsource services, these three characteristics are lost.

I don’t know how long Bruce will persist in his quest to get a News & Record. I can’t say I blame him if he says to hell with it.

And that’s a shame.

A quick selection of comments from Facebook and Twitter.

Jean in Greensboro: It took me several frustrating tries to link to the online site (like the phone number issue, they had already linked my email to a user name and somehow that was a barrier.) I have had many opportunities to use it as about twice a month we don’t receive the paper. When you get a person on the phone they are good at apologizing. Still haven’t gotten a call back from a supervisor I requested.

Mark on canceling the Washington Post:  I had the same experience with The Washington Post a few years ago. No “Why?”, no “Please reconsider,” no “What if we offer you some sort of a deal?” Just, “Okay.” No other business lets customers get away this easy.

Abbie in Greenville, N.C.: It’s definitely happening to us. We get Facebook messages about it all the time.

Matt in Roanoke: Now you don’t even reach someone at the paper. You reach someone in Texas.

Carol in Raleigh: I’ll take your word that this is a pervasive problem; can personally confirm though that N&O’s CS is a mess

Sherry in Hamilton, Ont.: Gave up 20 year subscription with The Spec due to poor customer service. Still miss “getting the paper”

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer tracks the relationship between Gov. McCrory and the legislature. It wasn’t a particularly good week for McCrory, but I don’t think he’s had many good weeks. The story doesn’t go particularly deeply into the chasms between the gov and the General Assembly — McCrory didn’t talk to the paper — but it’s interesting and could set the stage for a deeper, more analytical piece about what this means for McCrory’s future.

Greensboro: Last week, the Citizen-Times in Asheville wrote about the long wait for DNA testing on rape kits. This week, the News & Record follows that with its own story on efforts to work around the state’s backlog with regional crime labs. The search for solutions continues.

Lenior: The News-Topic has a pair of good stories about Amos Shook, whose car and presumably body were found last week at the bottom of Lake Rhodhiss. Forty-three years ago, Shook went out on a date and never returned. His family doesn’t think his car ended up in the lake by accident and doesn’t think it’s a suicide. What it remains is a mystery.

Raleigh: The N&O takes a compelling look at the connection between high school sports powerhouses and schools with a large number of poor students. The outcome is probably not surprising: High schools with a high percentage of poor students rarely win titles in the so-called country club sports – tennis, golf and swimming – and the number of sports in which the more affluent dominate is growing.

Sunday sampler

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I include the Observer’s front page to show what the result of the new design. (Courtesy of the Newseum.)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has two good ones today. First, a piece on how long it takes to run DNA tests on rape kits and the impact on real people. And it’s not good. More than 200 in Buncombe County alone going back years. “When I found out that rape kits weren’t getting tested, that was the next stab in my heart, and I cried for days,” Laurie said. “I knew it was everywhere and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am up against huge problems here.'”

The second piece in the Citizen-Times attempts to answer a question that I suspect many communities in N.C. and the South have: Why are wages here lower than other places in the country?  “The answer might be simple: Asheville has an economy with a mix of companies that do not make many of what economists call “high-value” products.” It’s a good piece, explaining economic theory is clear, easy-to-understand (even for me) language.

Burlington: 1,500 people rally in Mebane Graham in support of the Confederate monument there because they feel it’s threatened. If you wonder about the strength of the “heritage not hate” crowd, it’s here.

Fayetteville: I like stories about people openly carrying guns in public. They put the spotlight on the nation’s gun laws…and how the principles meet the practice. The Observer writes about a man walking around the Cross Creek Mall carrying an AR assault-type rifle. It’s apparently legal and it apparently alarmed people. (As you read this, imagine the guy were African American or a Moslem.) The debate rages.

Lenoir: The News-Topic has the fun story of the day out of Rhodhiss. The town believes — and has publicized — that the fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon was manufactured in a factory there. Now, someone with the state Department of Cultural Resources says no. My favorite line: “The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.” (The story goes on to explain each side.)

Raleigh: If you need another reason to hate insurance companies – and by extension, the General Assembly — the N&O provides one.  Basically, life insurance companies can hold onto unclaimed policies until the policy holder would have reached the age of 100 as long as the insurer hasn’t been notified of the person’s death. And of course, some beneficiaries may not be aware of the existence of the policy.

Winston-Salem: The Journal tells a horrible story about an adult care center that has now been closed. How this kind of thing continues to occur should shame us all. “Inspectors found that residents left the center on Reynolds Park Road and stayed away for days at a time with no one to check on them. Officials said residents were having sex in the woods with other residents who had sexually-transmitted infections or who lacked mental competence.”

The people are at Facebook & Twitter; where are you?

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“The new study, conducted by Pew Research Center in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, finds that clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.”

Ah, yes, it reminds me of the time several years ago when my boss expressed amazement that a neighbor told him she stopped the newspaper because she got the news she wanted from Facebook. It was in a different conversation when he told me to stop spending time on Twitter, which he called “a fad.”

News organizations have been on Facebook and Twitter for years and have had plenty of time to learn what works and how to behave. It’s surprising — although some will say it isn’t — that so many news organizations are terrible at it.

Many wait to tweet news until they have a link to their own website. Consequently, they are rarely first in delivering the news. Some write teases that tell you just enough that you have to follow the link. (You’re a news organization — serve your followers rather than tease them.)

Some news organizations either don’t monitor their Facebook feeds or hold such a loose rein that racist and offensive comments abound. Have you tried to engage with a news organization on Twitter or Facebook? Often you’re ignored. (Full disclosure: I have had excellent results in this respect with the News & Record, which is my former employer.)

PJ_2015.07.14_Twitter-and-News_13I’ve cut back on the traditional news organizations I follow because they are doing it wrong. I don’t know who they’re serving but it isn’t me. OK, that’s enough complaining. I’m an optimist and think there’s still time to act on this information. If you want to skate where the puck is going to be, you have to act fast. Your future audience is already there.

So, here are a few suggestions. They aren’t new or innovative; but neither are they executed with consistency by many news organizations.

* Many newspapers say they are digital first, but that’s often more of a trendy slogan rather than a strategy. What does digital first mean? How is it executed? What is the goal and how are you measuring the results?

* Put people who are active on social media personally in charge of your social media accounts. If they aren’t active in their leisure time, you don’t want them to learn on the job. If they are already on your staff and tweet and post to Facebook and YouTube, fine. But don’t transfer unqualified staffers. You wouldn’t hire a reporter without experience or qualifications. Why do it for the digital staff?

* Make sure the social media jobs have enough people. It’s easy to assign a few other responsibilities that take a person away from the networks. All of a sudden, nothing has been posted for hours. I know that staffing at news organizations is tight; where you put your staff shows where your priorities are.

* And while we’re talking about strategy and staffing, Mario Garcia today writes about the rise of the mobile editor. Build that position in now — mobile usership is growing. You have an opportunity to be where the audience is first.

* Give social media folks the latitude to have a voice and share information with attitude. The best people on social networks have interesting takes. I don’t mean being silly or snide; I simply mean writing with personality. The job description should include this: “Don’t be boring.” You might note that the Pew research shows that people use Twitter and Facebook differently. I know that I do. I rarely post the same links and thoughts to both places. This is an important concept for your social media presence.

* Make sure the social media folks have a voice and power within the organization. Too often they don’t. More and more news bubbles up from Twitter and Facebook. Stories and sources are there. Use them. That means editors must pay attention to what is being discussed on social media.

* Related, editors should be active on social media. That means doing more than posting links to your own stories. If you’re truly the leader of your news organization, you must be there. Followers will appreciate your authority, knowledge and interpretation of events.

* Twitter is actually making it easier for you with Twitter cards. As the Nieman Lab notes:  “What that means for media companies, or really anyone slinging links on Twitter, is that stories will get some extra room, complete with lead art and the first few words of a story.”

* While I understand the need for traffic to your website, do not make that the No. 1 priority for your social media presence. The constant search for clicks affects the team’s news judgment. Publishing clickbait affects your credibility. Follow the curation advice from Steve Buttry.

* You want to be known for being quick with the news? Well, be quick with it. Don’t wait for someone to provide a link. If you know it’s true, post it. You can provide the link as soon as the writer writes it.

Be engaging with followers, expansive with posts and interesting with your comments.

Large news organizations seem to be in better shape than smaller ones. That said, some smaller orgs do social very well. (Before you write, I know my sample is narrow and personal. I will easily acknowledge your organization has an excellent social media presence, if you say so.)

I’m no expert and this isn’t everything. Dig into this Pew report. There are findings and trends that you can exploit.

 

Meanwhile, Emily Bell gave some wise and much needed advice in London today.

“Today’s newsroom workflow can be increasingly broken into three parts, Bell told delegates. The breaking news feed now equals mobile alerts, an outlet’s social media presence is now day-to-day publishing, and websites are ‘effectively becoming the archive.’

“Key to the process of how news organisations should harness tech in the service of journalism is integrating as closely as possible with the social web, Bell added.

“If news organisations don’t move to work with these apps, she said, they’ll miss out on huge audience numbers as Facebook now has 1.3bn users and WhatsApp’s 800m.”

This won’t fix digital. There are still loading issues, video issues, mobile issues and content issues. But it’s a start.

 

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: I thought I knew everything about local politics, but of course I don’t. The News & Record explains clearly how the new City Council redistricting system shoved down Greensboro’s throat hurts voters and creates a system in which Republican candidates have an advantage. Want to get the least voters involved? Hold the election in October in odd-numbered years. The Legislature should be ashamed at its abuse of power.

Raleigh: You know how the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage is going to destroy the institution? The News & Observer flips it on its head, raising the question of whether more gay couples marrying will actually re-energize it. “That’s an interesting idea – does this have a halo effect on the institution,” said Philip N. Cohen, a University of Maryland sociology professor who has studied marriage trends. “The number of same-sex couples that are going to marry is small so you won’t see a big bump in the marriage rate. But it could have a symbolic effect.”

Raleigh and Winston-Salem: Both the News & Observer and the Journal have stories about the federal court case over N.C.’s voting law changes made by the Legislature two years ago. It’s going to be a big case with national implications. Worth reading. Perhaps the judge will rule on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act next month.

High Point: The Enterprise has what looks to be an interesting mystery story about a signed first edition of a Booker T. Washington book that turned up at the High Point Library used book sale. But the website is down so I can’t link to it.

Readers may love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back

Updated

Matt DeRienzo pointed out a truth in Ken Doctor’s “10 numbers that define the news business today” that I missed when I read it originally.

We seldom see much reporting of buyouts and layoffs these days, as some publishers concluded that the industry’s problems were only being exacerbated by its reporting on its own staff changes.

This applies to TV stations, too. In fact, they rarely report when they lose staff. Because TV news is so competitive, the last thing a TV anchor will acknowledge is that his or her station doesn’t have the largest newsgathering staff. But I have more experience with papers so….

I had to insist when we laid off journalists that we report it. (I specify journalists because I never seemed to know when people in other departments were laid off until days or weeks after it happened.) It was the one story my publisher insisted he read behind me. To him, publicizing a management decision that would reflect poorly on the business was crazy. I suspect that’s common. “Why tell customers that your business is in trouble?”

Thus, the typical statement from publishers when layoffs are announced: “We are adjusting to the changing media environment. Our coverage of the news and the community will be as strong as ever.”

Perhaps in the first wave of layoffs in 2007-8, this was true. Many newsrooms could absorb one hit. The best used it to focus their vision, move people where they were needed and get a jolt of energy with the new reality.

But after that, the idea that coverage would continue unabated was false, and everyone from publishers to editors to readers know it. More wire stories appear. Fewer enterprise and investigative stories that take are published. Agencies and organizations that used to be covered aren’t. Coverage of the environment, medicine and religion dwindles. More light community-generated content is published to fill pages.

Why does transparency matter?

Newspapers tend to be one of the older institutions in town, and they want to be of the community. Lopping off employees — many of the long-serving journalists — sends community knowledge out the door. Factual errors creep into the paper. Five years ago, the ombudsman at the Washington Post acknowledged the problem. It’s only gotten worse.

More important, readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when the product they are paying for is getting weaker. Every editor in the country should be studying how the Post and Courier in Charleston has responded to the massacre in its midst. The Post and Courier isn’t large, but it gave the community (and nation) outstanding coverage. Its journalists knew what to do and how to do it. The detail on its iconic front page is an example, but the inside the paper coverage isn’t slack, either.

There’s a great deal that is lost when newspapers cut staff. Stories and photos. People’s names and achievements. Detail. Exposure of government incompetence and corruption.

There’s no measure for it, but readers know it when they see it. Not acknowledging it won’t make it go away. But acknowledging it might help you. People rally for products and ideas they like and want to keep. Let your readers know you’re hurting and need help. See what happens: they might rally to help. If they don’t, that might tell you something.

Among journalists it’s said that you can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love you back. This is also true: Readers can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back. So, turn it on its head. Try something different. Love readers back. Talk honestly with them. Hear what they want and involve them in figuring out how to get it to them.

Think of the possibilities if you decide you’re going to love your readers. They have an open invitation into your house. They are treated with dignity and appreciation when they call, regardless of whether it’s a complaint. They get an announcement of their event published. The correction of the error you made gets prominent play, not buried. Stop messing with the comics and games.

This doesn’t mean you stop with your First Amendment responsibiities or that you back off of shining light into the community’s dark corners. That’s love, too.

The possibilities are endless.

Sunday sampler

Many of the Sunday newspapers have front page stories about the impact of the legislature’s budget negotiations on their communities: teacher assistant jobs being cut, community college tuition increases, how sales taxes will be distributed, etc. That’s good. People should know what kinds of mischief are being discussed in Raleigh. There are other stories, too.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times continues its string of interesting, out of the ordinary stories. Today’s is about two suicides in the same jail, four months apart, and what the jail – and the SBI – is saying about them. There is no smoking gun right now, but a good newspaper shines light into dark corners, and it writes about the poor and struggling. That’s what this story does.

Durham: If you were a pastor of an AME church, would you think twice about a white person joining the congregation? If you were a pastor of a “liberal” church, would you think twice about a new face entering the sanctuary? If you were a pastor of any predominantly black church, how worried would you be today? The Herald-Sun visits the issue of security at churches in the wake of the deadly Charleston shootings.

Raleigh: Want to know how bad government works? Read the News & Observer. This week’s story is on inefficiency and possibly corruption within the state Department of Health and Human Services. Again. This time involving Angie Sligh, who is in charge of the state’s Medicaid billing system. “Sligh was responsible for at least $1.6 million wasted over three years through excessive pay to temporary employees, paying temp agencies instead of the state’s less expensive in-house service, paying unjustified overtime and giving holiday pay to ineligible employees. At least 15 people with personal connections to Sligh had been hired in her office, at least seven of whom were not qualified for the job or were paid higher than the established pay scale, sometimes both.”

Winston-Salem: Know the leading cause of death in Forsyth County in 2013? How about 50 years earlier? Or 100 years ago? They were all different. Society changes in many ways: sometimes the courts do it, as they did this week; sometimes science does. This is an interesting story in that it tells you how we have changed. Oh, it’s cancer in 2013, heart disease in 1963 & TB in 1913.

“Love wins” and other N.C. front pages

On Twitter yesterday many journalists were expressing sympathy for Page 1 designers because there was so much news: same-sex marriage, Obama’s eulogy, terrorism attacks and New York escapees. I laughed to myself, thinking that it shouldn’t hard for most papers. What will matter the most to your readers the next morning?

Dramatic news demands dramatic design. Big emotion demands big play. And the most dramatic, emotional news for most people, is the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. (To say nothing of the historic import — newspapers will be bought and saved by a lot of people… who hardly ever buy a newspaper.)

It’s a mixed bag in N.C. None of the front pages I saw blew me away. Many of the smaller papers had only a promo line sending readers to an inside page…or no mention at all. It is worth noting — and quickly dismissing — that polls show that most North Carolinians oppose same-sex marriage, some passionately. Newspaper journalists should be aware of that, but not beholden to it in their news judgments. (And I say that knowing that I was once scolded by an angry publisher for putting a photo of two women kissing on the front page.)

So, here we go. Images courtesy of the Newseum. Front pages from three usually reliable newspapers — the Burlington Times-News the News & Record of Greensboro and the Star News of Wilmington — aren’t on the site. I also include some of the larger national papers at the bottom of this post.

Meanwhile, Mashable has collected front pages from around the country.

I like Asheville the best because they play it big with strong art and a headline that I like and that many might say is “biased.”

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Fayetteville, which usually plays big stories big with bold, compelling art, was more conservative than I thought it would be. The headline doesn’t really describe the news: analysts had been predicting this ruling for a while. And the photo is routine; it could be people cheering a soccer goal.

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Charlotte went with two stories dominant. I suppose they felt the need to get Obama’s eulogy in Charleston high on the page because their S.C. readership. It was a helluva speech — I watched it on TV — but the printed word can’t compete with video on this one.

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Good for Hickory. Small town, but they gave the story the front page…and had a big photo of men hugging.

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Sunday sampler

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It’s not a North Carolina front page, but I’m breaking the rules because it is what front pages should be: Powerful, memorable and touching.

It’s Father’s Day and many N.C. newspapers have stories marking the day. I am not noting those.

Charlotte: The Observer marks a milestone: for the first time, a woman is the highest paid CEO in N.C. “Susan DeVore, chief executive of Charlotte-based health care company Premier, was the highest paid executive among the top 50 last year, with total compensation of $24.9 million, according to the Observer’s annual review of executive pay. That’s the first time a woman has topped the list.” (She is only 3 of 50, though.) 

Greensboro: The News & Record begins a series on law enforcement officer-involved shootings — 33 people have died in 61 shootings involving law enforcement officers since 2000. “All but one of those 61 cases were ruled to be justified, and in the one case found not to be justified, an officer paid a fine for a misdemeanor.” Equally interesting — and damning — is the difficulty the newspaper had in getting information from law enforcement.

Sunday sampler

A lot of high school graduation stories this morning. A big deal it is. And there’s other stuff:

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Asheville: It’s difficult for this city folk to imagine the joy of bear hunting, but it’s clearly a thing. The Citizen-Times does what good newspapers do: searches through documents to tell a compelling, important story about people and government.  “Operation Something Bruin has pitted a slice of mountain life against the government. Wildlife law officers maintain that they targeted bear poachers whose hunting tactics were neither legal nor sportsmanlike, taking animals without regard for the hunting season or as they fed over candy used as bait.”

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Charlotte: My wife was Dorothy at The Land of Oz so this story about vandals stealing pieces of the partially-closed attraction hits home. “Land of Oz is falling prey to an Internet fad called ‘urbex’ for urban exploration. Adventurers seek out deserted places and post eerie pictures of their expeditions on sites specializing in what is called ‘ruin porn.’” Thanks, Facebook.

Fayetteville: I’m sorry to see Rep. Rick Glazier is resigning to become the executive director of the N.C. Justice Center. His voice was loud and clear in the General Assembly. He cut through so much of the crap. The Observer discusses his importance as a progressive in Raleigh.

Raleigh: And on the other side of the aisle, the N&O profiles Sen. Tom Apodaca, who is part of the political muscle moving the state back to the 1940’s. Want to see how rough-and-tumble politics works, read the story. It remind you how silly what you learned in civics class was.