The doom of newspapers

January 17, 2012

In an uncharacteristic burst of giddy optimism, I posted yesterday about my confidence that The Baltimore Sun, marking its 175th anniversary this year, will survive in some form to its bicentennial.

A couple of comments from readers reminded me what will eventually kill the print newspaper.

It is not liberal bias—not that you can find much of that any longer in news pages, journalists having been so thoroughly buffaloed by conservatives over the past forty years that they have become shy even about publishing established fact.

It’s not supercilious editors deciding that they know what is best for readers and readers can just take their medicine and shut up.

It is not the Internet.

It is not even the passing of the last generation devoted to the print habit.

It is the crappy customer service.

Here’s a comment on that post from Eve: “Circulation - actually, the customer service aspect thereof - was the final straw for my subscription. My paper did not arrive before I left for work. When I called Circulation to complain, a truly needs-her-face-slapped-off-snotty woman told me that the paper is not late until 9 a.m. Oh, so the target market would be the retired and independently wealthy? At the time, I could get a copy from a nice man who stood in the early-morning cold in the center isle of Northern Parkway.”

When you subscribe to a print newspaper, you are buying a product, a manufactured thing. Then you discover that (a) you don’t know when you will receive it on any given day*, and (b) sometimes you will not get it at all. At most newspapers, you can call a number and press through a series of recorded options, and, in Eve’s case, get some snippy human being who tells you that you are not entitled to complain.

Then you give up.

This is known in the business. Several years ago, The Sun plunged into an ill-planned mega-route system so chaotic that the paper lost 10,000 subscribers. “Ten thousand readers!” Mike Waller, then the publisher, said, growling at the management committee. “You lose money, it’s just money, you can always make more money. But you lose TEN THOUSAND READERS and you’re never getting them back.”

To be fair, the processes of manufacturing and distributing tens and hundreds of thousands of individual newspapers are bewilderingly complex and difficult, a daily struggle for everyone involved. My own little part in the process is challenging enough, and it’s nothing in comparison to the challenges in printing and circulation.

But it is also true that American newspapers have been careless about customer service for years, always assuming that more readers will come along and that it will be easier to recruit new ones than satisfy the existing ones.

Now we see where that got us.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.