It’s How You Say It

Yesterday I took the Winston-Salem Journal to task for offering higher quality reprints of Wednesday's "Obama Wins" front page to people who bought the Thursday paper over the counter, but not to subscribers.  I emailed managing editor Ken Otterbourg and he essentially replied with the same rationale he used in his blog post about the issue:

Several bloggers, including my friend Lucy Cash at Life in Forsyth, are criticizing the Journal for its decision on publishing a special reprint of our election results front page that is only available in single-copy sales, rather than in the papers that go to subscribers.

It’s still a free country, and they have the right to criticize. And it’s all well and good to have conversations and disagreements about what we should have and could have done. My personal belief is that it’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot. I wasn’t part of the decision on how to reprint, but from what I’ve been able to glean, the logic was as follows: Subscribers got the real thing, the actual paper printed on Nov. 5. Many folks who buy the paper one day at a time didn’t, because we sold out. So this was something for them. The subscribers’ anger is that they are loyal and they should be rewarded for their loyalty with the special reprint. That makes sense, too, although from my standpoint, the real thing is more valuable and intrinsically historical than a reprint. 

My response to Ken was that subscribers wouldn't see this as an "either or" issue.  If they were simply making another newsprint run of the front page then maybe a subscriber would buy the rationale that they got the real deal the first time around so there's no reason to send them the new copy.  But that's not what the Journal said.  Here's the text of their announcement:

A special souvenir reprint of today's front page, printed on high-quality paper, will be inserted tomorrow in all single-copy papers — those sold in racks and at retail outlets. Papers containing the souvenir front also will be on sale at the front counter of the Winston-Salem Journal at 418 N. Marshall Street.

They themselves call it a "special souvenir reprint."  So as subscriber's we're not special?  Also, they offer it free to anyone who buys the regular Thursday paper over the counter.  Why wouldn't a subscriber expect to be treated as well as an over the counter buyer?  Heck we're the ones who make a long term commitment to the paper, and we're the ones who agreed to pay a certain rate and actually had the product shrink in the meantime.

Now compare the Journal's approach to the Greensboro News & Record's announcement of their special extra run of their Wednesday edition:

The News & Record printed about 10,000 extra copies of Wednesday's front section.

The copies will be available Thursday for 50 cents at some stores and at the News & Record's office at 200 E. Market Street in downtown Greensboro.

The News & Record is also selling a commemorative copy of Wednesday's front page mounted on a marble or wood plaque for $75.

Visit our online store to purchase your copy today.

First of all the N&R reprint is simply a duplicate run of the original newsprint front section.  Second, they are selling it separately so all readers are treated equally.  Finally, they wisely promote their mounted copy service, which is similar to what the Journal does.  Almost all major newspapers offer mounted high quality commemorative reprints of almost any page; where do you think all those plaques with newspaper reviews that you see at restaurant entrances come from?

Quite simply the Journal screwed the pooch in how they structured their reprint offer and how they communicated it.  I'm sure from their perspective it seems like "no big deal" but I've worked in environments where businesses have had to reduce services due to budget constraints, asked their customers to hang with them and be pleasantly surprised when many do, and then face a surprising amount of criticism over a seemingly innocuous announcement.  The scary part is you only hear from a small minority of the folks who are pissed, but in the following months you continually see the offending action offered by now-former-customers as one of the main reasons they are leaving.

They can pooh-pooh it all they want, but I'm telling you that the mere fact that the bloggers even paid attention is that the paper has made lots of moves that have irked and annoyed them (us).  This was easy to criticize because it seemed so emblematic of how the paper seems to view its subscribers.  Instead of pooh-poohing us they might want to consider us the canaries in the gold mine. 

This whole thing had me thinking about the newspaper folks in general last night, and what I've begun to understand is that alot of the people in the business have deluded themselves. Sure, they know they're business is in trouble but I seriously doubt that they truly understand how much of it is actually within their control.  Yes ad revenue is down and classifieds are in the tank thanks to large industry shifts, but they are the ones who didn't foresee the changes and have been too slow to react.  They are also the ones who cut back on editorial staff which resulted in a diminished capacity to generate local, original content.  So guess why we can now turn to the intenet and get essentially the same product we used to get from the paper?  Finally, they still control the relationship with their customers.  They have every opportunity to take advantage of new media outlets and expand and deepen their relationship with their customers, but they take half-ass measures like enabling comments on their website and then offer zero moderation or discussion.  Essentially they speak down to us and then say "shout among yourselves, we're above the fray."

I'm pretty sure Journal folks don't see things this way, but as a customer I can tell them that I do see their attitude this way and I know that I'm not alone.  If they're wise they'll take this kerfluffle as an object lesson and vow that from now on they'll look at things from their customers' perspective in the decisions that they make.  They need to remember that perceptions matter and that in situations like this the customers' perceptions matter more than their own.  If we feel like we've been screwed then we have, whether the wise men at the Journal agree or not. 

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