The industry cannot afford to toss its subscribers overboard

Jun 1, 2023

A moment of privilege here to recount my recent experience with one of my favorite newspapers, a regional business newspaper. I have been a subscriber almost since its founding, having known one of the men who brought it into being.

Getting all the work done is possibly the biggest challenge today in the newspaper business. Any newspaper is a complex enterprise — really several businesses wrapped into one. One involves providing commercial value to advertisers. One is about gathering and distributing information. A third is the logistical challenge of getting all of this carefully curated product into the hands of purchasers, usually known in our industry as subscribers. It is the least sexy part of the business. It is usually the most neglected.

Management attention tends to be lavished upon the first two businesses. In the old days, circulation societies supported the industry, where loyal logistics managers labored on and drew support from one another that they weren’t getting from the C Suite. Now, these skilled circulators are hard to find. Instead, we have a customer service lady at a keyboard, doing the best she can. When she fails, the reader assumes this business is circling the drain.

It doesn’t matter whether this distribution is digital or print. Same problem, same solutions. Attention to the readers and subscribers is what keeps the other two businesses together.

A moment of privilege here to recount my recent experience with one of my favorite newspapers, a regional business newspaper. I have been a subscriber almost since its founding, having known one of the men who brought it into being.

I moved my residence in 2022. A few days ago, I noticed I had not received the paper for a while. I assumed my copies were tied up in the abysmal service USPS provides for Periodicals that are not hand carried to a local post office at the publisher’s expense. This paper, being regional, goes through the Circles of Hell that are the USPS processing network.

But then I realized I hadn’t seen the paper for weeks.

I rooted around in my files to find my electronic credentials and signed on at the website. Yep, I was in the database. Yep, my address was correct. Hmmm. So what gives?

It took a whole cup of coffee to excavate the paper’s website for a human being to call. But finally I found a customer service number. With apologies to the woman on the other end of the line, who was doing her best, the conversation went something like this.

“I am not receiving my paper. But my address is correct in your database, so I am concerned,” said I.

“Oh, yes ma’am, let me look up your file. No, that is not an email we have. Do you use another one?” she said.

“That is the one I use to sign onto the website. I’m sure it is correct,” said I.

“Oh, no,” she replied after gathering up other contact information from me. She gave me an email address that I ceased to use a decade ago.

“But you have my current address,” I said. “And you have my correct physical address.” She pleasantly read off my old residential address.

“Ah,” I said, the reality dawning upon me. “Your print and digital databases are not integrated. What you have for me online isn’t what you see in the subscriber database.”

“I can change it for you now,” she chirpily replied. “Then you will be able to sign on and read the articles.”

“No, I don’t want to sign on. Er, I am signing on. I mean, I already CAN sign on. That is how I am reading you my file,” I responded.

“I can change your address now,” she said again.

By this time, I was in full postal rant.

“USPS gave you my forwarding address,” I said. “Why isn’t it in your database?”

“Oh, they don’t always tell us,” she answered.

Well, I know that is not true, and said so. I mentioned the USPS Address Change Service, which of course was a foreign term to her.

She spoke in a mellow Southern drawl. I took a guess at her city. I was off by about 100 miles, but I knew I wasn’t talking to an outsourced clerk in the Near East. This patient lady was at the bottom of a large corporate food chain in the US of A, trying to hold onto a neglected subscriber on behalf of a company that didn’t care enough about me to transport the data I had given them into the right place. Somehow, it made more corporate sense to spend money on her than to invest in a working circulation-and-mail system. I was glad she had a job. I was not glad to spend an hour of my time giving her work that should have been unnecessary.

By the end of the conversation, we had agreed that I was not susceptible to switching to the digital newspaper, that she could give me credit for missed issues but the credit could not be applied to my subscription. Rather, the company prefers to write me a check for some small amount. I am rolling my eyes.

I looked up the circulation management staff and sent a love note about my experience, suggesting that the industry cannot afford to toss its subscribers overboard as it tried to do with me. I am betting I will get a reply that has to do with the wonderful features of the digital newspaper.

At the end of the day, I now expect to start receiving my printed paper in the mail again sometime in the next 30 days, allowing for USPS to delay it by a week or two; I am not happy. But I want my newspaper.

USPS makes it fairly simple to keep track of subscribers. That more newspapers don’t take advantage of the service is a continual surprise to me. But I understand. Gathering the news and selling the advertising are hard enough. Keeping track of subscribers, well, that job is on hold.

Tonda Rush can be emailed at