I've been a Statesman Journal subscriber for 40 years. Recently I got a notice that my 7-day subscription price will go up from $36/month to $41/month.
At first that didn't bother me. Yeah, it's a 14% increase in an economy where inflation is running under 3% a year. And I was paying only $205 a year back in 2009, which translates into a Statesman Journal subscription price of $17/month.
So that's a 140% subscription increase over eight years, an average of 17.5% a year.
I was curious to see if the $41/month our subscription was going to cost starting in April 2017 was the regular price. Or the price a new subscriber would pay.
What I learned has led me to conclude that the Gannett Corporation, in the guise of the Statesman Journal, appears to be scamming new subscribers and confusing current subscribers.
Here's what the Statesman Journal says a 7-day a week subscription costs: $22/month.
There's an introductory offer of just $11/month, 50% off the usual rate -- which my razor-sharp senior citizen mind was able to calculate equaled the above $22/month rate.
OK. I now knew that the regular advertised subscription rate for 7-day home delivery is $22/month. Which led me to wonder, why the heck is my subscription going to cost $41/month?
Optimistically, I figured that if I phoned the toll-free number on the rate increase notification that came from the Statesman Journal, a customer service person would give me the $22/month rate after I told them my story.
But that didn't happen. Instead, the person I talked with said that the $22/month rate was just an introductory rate that would jump after the first three months were over.
I replied, "No, the introductory rate for 7 day delivery is $11/month. That's shown as a 50% savings from the regular rate, which is $22/month. So why can't I have the $22/month rate?"
Her response was to reiterate that the introductory rate would jump up to the regular rate, which apparently was my $41/month rate, after the first few months were over. Since that was her final offer, I thanked her and tried a different approach.
The other customer service option on the rate increase letter: "log in at StatesmanJournal.com/customer service for a live chat with a Customer Service representative."
Result: same answer. This is most of our chat exchange. What's missing is my initial question, which isn't shown on the thread. But I repeated that question in my first chat message (in blue) below.
Well, this was disturbing.
The way I see it, Kevin had told me that the $22/month rate actually was a "promotional" rate, and the $11/month rate was an "introductory" rate (or maybe the reverse), even though nothing I could find on the Statesman Journal site indicates that $22/month is anything other than the regular rate.
When I log out of my Statesman Journal account and visit the SJ web page as a non-subscriber, I'm met with an invitation to subscribe in the upper right corner. This is what pops up when I click on it.
Again, the Monday-Sunday 7 day a week option says $11/month for the first three months, "save 50%." Fifty percent of $22 is $11. When I click on "subscribe," I'm led to a page where I took this screenshot:
Now, this page doesn't say what the price will be after three months. But the previous page said that I'd pay $11/month for three months, a 50% saving. So this sure seems to mean that the regular price will be $22/month.
Except... I'm paying $41/month starting in April. And I was told by two different customer service people that I couldn't get a lower subscription rate.
So it appears that the Statesman Journal is misleading people with the $22/month Monday-Sunday price offer. Or, I was misled that there is no lower price than $41/month.
Either way, somebody is getting scammed.
I'll ask Statesman Journal staff to comment on this blog post. Also, I'd be interested to know if anyone else is paying a different amount for a regular Monday-Sunday subscription. Again, I've been paying $36/month, which is going to jump to $41/month in April 2017.
It's difficult to get comparable up-to-date figures on newspaper circulation these days. A few years ago I presented evidence that from 2008 to 2014, the Statesman Journal had a 41% decline in daily circulation (excludes Sunday).
Thus it is understandable that Salem's daily newspaper would be both raising subscription prices and trying to attract new subscribers. I just wish the Statesman Journal would be more open and upfront about its pricing, because it looks like the paper is attempting to suck in new subscribers with an approach that arguably is a scam.
Meaning, making it look like $22/month is the regular Monday-Sunday price, even though I was told by two customer service representatives that the price I'm paying, $41/month, is the lowest non-promotional price.
Update: I tried to find the email address of Barbara Smith, VP Customer Service, who signed the oh-so-personal letter addressed to me with a Statesman Journal return address. But it turns out that Ms. Smith is a Gannett executive who signs letters that go to Gannett subscribers all around the country.
A bit of Googling turned up a marvelously snarky 2013 piece from the Nashville Scene, "Dear Customer: Pay More for Less. Love, Barbara." Some excerpts:
In a move that truly merits a place of honor in the corporate hallucination hall of fame, the "customer service" wing of The Tennessean dropped me (and presumably all 16 other remaining print subscribers) a line this week informing me that the paper's utter fabulousness warrants an arresting 26% hike in the subscription price. This big an increase all at once would be irksome on its own given a low-inflation economy and the ever-declining quality of Gannett's product, but coming as it does on the heels of multiple rounds of newsroom layoffs it's downright appalling.
Of course, the missive from Customer Service VP Barbara Smith doesn't bother to mention the old rate or the scope of the increase. The hope, obviously is that we won't notice its magnitude, nor recall that subscription prices rose big time as recently as mid-2012 when the paper unveiled digital apps and an online paywall. In all, the cost of my seven-day home-delivery subscription in the last 15 months has jumped a whopping 68 percent, from $17.25 in May 2012 to the new rate of $29.00 starting next month.
...Look, we readers get it that the newspaper business is economically dire, and that over the long run, daily dead-tree home delivery is becoming an expensive luxury. Many news organizations are confronting their uncertain future by struggling heroically to maintain the mission and the quality while bracing against the gathering storm. At The Tennessean the approach is a little different: deplete the staff, kill morale, dilute the quality of the product, jack up the prices, and hope nobody notices.
Sounds familiar. This is the Gannett modus operandi. It's being done here in Salem, and also elsewhere. For example, check out this report, "Layoffs in Local Newsrooms," which describes recent cuts at Gannett newspapers in New Jersey.