Thursday, October 04, 2012

Newspapers are dying. I'd like to change that.

Long story short: I didn't get my newspaper today.

Long story long: read on...

Newspapers have been part of my morning routine ever since I can remember. As soon as I could read, I'd grab the paper and voraciously consume it over breakfast. It was almost against my wannabe-kid-journalist's religion to be at the table without a broadsheet spread awkwardly in between the cereal boxes and juice glasses. A bare table seemed so, I don't know, naked, and left me with nothing to do, nothing to ponder, nothing new to talk about.

Eventually, I grew up. And by the age of 10, I was pulling a wagon filled with papers on my first paper route. First, I delivered for the now-defunct Montreal Star, an afternoon paper, and eventually shifted into early mornings for the still-at-it Gazette. I can still feel what it was like to step out of the house into the cool darkness of an early summer morning. Sure, like any kid I would have rather been sleeping. But once I got out the door, I was ready to wander the neighborhood, drop off my papers, then head home for breakfast. And a read, of course.

Fast forward

Old habits die hard. I still treasure the experience of reading the paper at the kitchen table. I know the world has changed: the paper's a little - okay, a lot - thinner and the writing isn't always as inspirational or educational as I remember. The Internet Age has upended the very nature of what we read and how we read it. I can just as easily flip open my iPad and sit it down next to my orange juice glass.

But here's the thing: The iPad doesn't cut it as a rich, immersive, breakfast table experience. I can't feel the paper in my hands, and it doesn't echo back to those moments in childhood where my future journalistic seeds were being planted. It doesn't connect me to the writers, the newsroom, the community in anywhere near the same way.


So this morning, when I got up early and drove out to the TV studio for an early interview, I had something to look forward to in the mailbox when I got home. The interview went exceptionally well (CTV Canada AM, as wonderful a team as you could ever hope to work with) and I was feeling pretty good about myself as I turned for home and watched the sun break through the clouds. Problem was, when I parked the car and headed in, the mailbox was empty. For the umpteenth time since we moved here, the London Free Press had failed to deliver our paper.

Now, in the overall scheme of things, this is barely a blip. It's a first-world problem of the most trivial order, something I should be able to overlook without much of a second thought. I still had lots of food in the kitchen, a lovely roof over my head, a wife I adore, kids I love beyond reason, a delightfully mischievous dog who greeted me from his perch in the middle of the kitchen table, and a day filled with all sorts of promising work. I should have been able to move past the simple absence of a newspaper. I should have simply picked up my iPad and read it online. I didn't. For two reasons:

  1. I pay for the paper. And trivial or not, it bugs me that I'm paying for something, then not getting that something. Sure, every time we call with a complaint, we're told "our account will be credited." But it never is - we pay the same each month, and they never extend the terms or drop the rate - and I'm left wondering why I'm paying some Quebec-based corporation for the privilege of being ignored two days out of six.
  2. Their website sucks. I mean, seriously, it's gawd-awful. They recently redesigned it, part of a corporate-wide initiative to move the needle beyond circa-1998 web standards. You'd think it would render nicely on an iPad. Or a MacBook Pro, or any of the other myriad screens/devices/platforms/browsers I have in the house. You'd think wrong.

So I did what any frustrated tech/journalist/subscriber would do. I tweeted:

Normally, I'd call the customer "help" line, but I didn't because: 1 - I had a deadline, and 2 - they wouldn't help me at all. It always plays out the same way, and I always end up having wasted my time complaining to someone who doesn't much care, and has no inclination or ability to resolve this issue once and for all.

A few minutes later, however. I heard back from Pat Maloney, a reporter:
To which I responded:
To which he responded:

Ironically, Pat did know what to say. And his decision to respond - despite the fact that he's a reporter and has no connection to Circulation - was a pleasant surprise, a confirmation that someone there still cares. And based on his writing and previous conversations/interviews we've had, I know that he does.

And that's the rub. I'm an atypical customer of an organization that's trying to navigate a fundamental, wrenching change to its very business model. Unlike most other customers, I'm a passionate consumer of the product, with a deep appreciation of its history and what it has brought - and continues to bring - to the community. Hell, I even used to write for these folks - I freelanced op-ed columns for a while. I want to be a happy customer, to receive fair value for what the paper is trying to sell, to continue to support its presence in and contributions to our community. And at every turn, I'm stymied.

Give it up?

My wife has been suggesting for years that we should just quit, get rid of our subscription. She, understandably, is tired of the indifferent customer service, the constant gutting of a vehicle that once represented the best this city could offer, the valueless back-and-forth every time they fail to deliver, the excuses piled on top of excuses that do nothing to reinforce the notion that this is a business with a future.

So on the far-fetched assumption that anyone from the London Free Press, Sun Media, or their parent corporation Quebecor actually reads this, here's what I'm hoping happens:

  1. You call me. Or comment here. Or tweet me. Or post something to my Facebook page.
  2. We discuss what is, apparently, a serious issue with your ability to fulfill your mandate.
  3. We shed light on how you intend to improve not only your ability to deliver dead trees to my doorstep, but how you plan on ensuring your continued relevance to both folks who want you to succeed, as well as folks who long ago gave up on the notion of subscribing.
  4. Similarly, we shed light on how we, as concerned community members, can contribute to this process. We are ultimately in this together.

I realize it's the height of arrogance to take what would normally be a simple customer service issue and turn it into a major kerfuffle. I also realize it's a somewhat edgy move to air this in a public, social media-based forum. But this is far more than a simple customer service issue, and I am so passionate about the future of media in this city that I'm taking a somewhat unconventional route to get the attention of an organization that to-date hasn't been as responsive to my - and London's - needs as many of us would like. The discussion's got to start somewhere, so why not here?

I'm waiting. Surprise me.

All the best,



Kalei's Best Friend said...

I too feel the same way about newspapers and books... and I still will resort to looking up articles online... I'm a creature of habit, I admit... Nothing beats the feel,scent of a newspaper/book... Getting the paper in the morning is part of starting the day off.. and when that paper isn't there on the driveway u bet, I am on the phone calling in for a replacement... Our major paper has downsized the sections- some have condensed two sections together.. I am glad that our paper offers discounts- the trick is to call in and from time to time and ask if any discount has been updated- that is one way they keep a paying customer..

Bernie said...

I, too, remember pulling along a newspaper cart, filled with Mirrors and Suns (10 & 12 cents respectively), blowing my whistle wanting to gain the attention of people wanting to purchase MY papers... Ahh the days of print media being the only way, well, apart from the nightly TV news and/or radio, to stay in touch...

Alas, we too had the subscription for the Sunday paper, but with missed deliveries, papers thrown into neighbouring properties, not to mention the many places offering a free, yes FREE paper, if you visit them (McDonalds and the local carwash), it became a 'convenience' thing, with having the car washed and getting a free paper and coffee! Ok, the car wash may have been slightly excessive in cost, but they do a far better job then me, and I am happy to pay for that service!

Additionally, the immediacy of news being available, not just radio/TV anymore, but social media, websites from the papers them selves, simply make it a lot easier, and I suspect, it will be a sign of the times, and will go much the same as vinyl records, cassette tapes etc...

Additionally, and I am not sure just what impact it may, or may not, make, but in today’s environmental friendly world, people are almost boycotting the papers, as its seen as an unsustainable (environment) commodity, when they can read the news online? “Save the Trees”.

Conversely, people may just counter-argue, that fossil fuels to power the energy providers so as we can read, via a computer, the news, “Save Greenhouse Emissions – save power” – and both are valid points!! But, this can be a discussion for another day…

Anonymous said...

I'm not as hardcore a newspaper reader as you, but I share your concerns.

Mine deal with the future of radio. I loved listening to it as a kid and I enjoy it even more now (well) into my adulthood.

I fear about what will happen to radio as the world evolves, will it be swallowed up into the web? Last week I had a friend tell me Radio 98 just had their 90th anniversary. They, like the Free Press and CTV used to all be part of the same family. What are the chances they last to 100?

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I had a newspaper route, Carmi.

I'd used my canvas delivery bag when I could, but for the Sunday paper I pulled a wagon.

It was the Washington Star.

JJ said...

Wow! What a response. I, too, have a subscription, and I love my newspaper. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I just worry what you might do if the local market runs out of toilet tissue.

Unknown said...

How refreshing, Carmi! In the U.S. nearly every city has gone to one newspaper. But I too like the feel of paper and look forward to the various sections. Newspapers have been marginalized. I like your approach!

Alexia said...

I know how it feels to walk out to the gate in the morning and find NO PAPER!! Am I sad enough to say it pretty much ruins my day? Having to leave for school without reading it makes me grumpy.
I have to say, though, that it happens very rarely - and they do always give us a credit when it does occur.

Lately I have been struggling to accept the change of format of our morning paper from a broadsheet to a "compact" (their word - they are trying to avoid the connotations that go with "tabloid").
It just doesn't feel like a Proper Paper to me...