Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sorry, We Don't Deliver

One of Sara's favorite things in the world is The New York Times. I'll admit, I kinda like it, too. Until last fall, we were subscribers and awoke to find a copy of the Times in our driveway every day of the week. However, since moving out of the People's Republic of Madison (as some call it) to a smaller Wisconsin city, we have been utterly unsuccessful in securing home delivery of the Times.

What's that you say? Sometimes you have to give up such things for the slower pace and quality of small-town life. Sometimes. But why is it that our friends two blocks down the street get Sunday delivery and their neighbors across the street get seven-day-a-week delivery? Hmmm...

Believe me. We didn't take NO for an answer. We made more than a dozen calls to customer service. We got different answers each time, ranging from "we'll have a newspaper on your doorstep tomorrow" to "we don't deliver to your community." We talked to supervisors. We found out the local news carrier's name, called his house, and spoke to his wife. We formally canceled our subscription and initiated a new one, first for 7-day delivery, then for Sunday-only. Nothing.

We've resorted to going down to the local convenience store on Sunday mornings to pick up a full-price ($5.00) copy of the Sunday Times. But we kinda miss that home delivery and deep discount that comes with an educator subscription discount to the paper. Reading the Times online just isn't quite the same either. Maybe we're just "old school."

A recent Atlantic article ("End Times") predicts the imminent death of the print version of the Times (at least all but the Sunday edition):
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: “Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”
As a result, you would think that, if feasible, newspapers like the New York Times would do everything they can to retain existing subscribers. In our case, due to the layout of our neighborhood, we're certain that our local carrier passes within sight of our house to deliver papers to at least two other households in our community. Yet, we're told that the Times cannot deliver to our address and, as a result, they have lost needed subscription revenue and committed subscribers. Perhaps the business side of the operation is, in part, what is ailing The New York Times.

Clearly, though, larger forces are weighing on the Times and the newspaper industry as a whole: the growth of the web and the economic recession. I've seen the twin impact of these forces through a personal lens -- my sister-in-law -- who has lost jobs at newsweeklies in two different cities over the past year.

I'll confess that I have resorted to reading elements of the Times online. Through Google Reader, I am a subscriber to its RSS feeds for Education, Opinion, Paul Krugman, and Week in Review. Some of that content is just too relevant to my work or too good to pass up. But what revenue is the Times receiving from me? Zero. Ziltch.

More, from The Atlantic article:
The conundrum, of course, is that those 1 million print readers, who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t. Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity
Perhaps therein lies the problem that faces print media across the board. Readers are accessing free content and dropping subscriptions or failing to stop by newsstands to pick up physical copies of newspapers. I suppose that I am in the minority in that I am willing to pay for a print subscription -- if only the Times would let me have one.

How to fix this dynamic is a topic for blogs and outlets other than this one. Will people pay for online content is a key question? It seems to me that generally the answer is "no," which puts the traditional media in a real pickle. Sure, they can sell ad space, but do enough readers actually clicks on those online ads to generate sufficient revenue? All good questions.

Until the Times creates a new, workable business model, however, it seems to me that it should maximize revenues from its current one. I may not have a MBA, but from my perspective in this corner of Wisconsin, clearly it is not.

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