November 29, 2021

Rumor has it that when you call to cancel a digital newspaper subscription, instead of a yes, you will get a barrage of counteroffers. Turns out the rumor is true.

In a spirit of experimentation, I took out $1 introductory digital subscriptions in the spring to The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. This fall, as much higher monthly rates kicked in, I tried to cancel.

Here is how my conversation went with The Boston Globe, an acknowledged leader among regional papers in building a paid digital base, with more than 200,000 subscribers.

Kerry: Hi, this is Kerry. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking today?

Me: (Gave my name and some other identifying details she requested.)

Kerry: Well first, Mr. Edmonds, I would like to thank you for being a loyal subscriber since (slight pause here) March 2021. How can I help you?

Me: I am calling to cancel. My rate went up from $1 for six months to $27.72 per month. That’s way more than I’m willing to pay.

Kerry: I can offer you a rate of $5 per week … for an entire year!

Me: Well that would still be more than $20 a month — too high.

Kerry: Let me ask, what sections do you particularly enjoy reading?

Me: The sports section is outstanding, and your teams compete with our Tampa Bay teams. Do you have an offer for just that part of the site? Or something cheaper for a longer term?

Kerry: (Enthusiastically) I do have an amazing offer today! $3 per four-week period for 16 weeks.

Me: That’s better but still too much for me.

Kerry: Let me ask, Mr. Edmonds, how much would you be willing to pay?

Me: I suppose $1 a week.

Done deal. I have been extended through March 2022.

I suppose I should have tried 25 cents.

Actually, after a little quick bargaining with my Chicago Tribune representative, I was also able to renew that subscription for 25 cents a week for six more months. That compares to the Tribune’s full rate of $15.96 per four weeks.

My conversation with the Los Angeles Times went a bit differently. While the Globe and Tribune response times were quick, at the Times I languished through some confusing routing and in a phone queue for nearly half an hour.

My rep, once I got to her, volunteered a “special promotion” rate of $2.33 a week. I turned that down. She said that, with regret, she would respect my decision and cancel. Then she offered some advice. When the subscription lapses, just sign up again for the $1 per six months offer.

I did so with no problem — with a whole new round of greetings and thank you emails, in fact.

This practice isn’t new. I wrote in early 2018 about my friend Kevin Helliker who called to cancel the Los Angeles Times and was offered a too-good-to-refuse extension at $1.04 a year.

The Times was still owned by Tribune Publishing then, and a circulation executive confirmed that the tactic was being used across the chain.

What’s going on here?

Despite the mantra that the future of legacy newspapers depends on paid digital subscriptions, many appear ready to forgo revenue to keep their numbers growing.

That is a particular match for public companies that want to impress Wall Street with a story of digital momentum.

Even the mighty New York Times, with its 7.5 million digital subscribers, makes heavy use of deep discounts — though it declines to specify the share of the total number of subscribers paying intro rates, which now dip as low as $1 a month.

Boston Globe circulation director Tom Brown gave a presentation at a professional conference this spring explaining how the $1 for six months offer provides a good yield on paying subscribers.

More drop out initially than those who came in at higher introductory rates (though deep-discount retention deals like mine would blunt that effect). However, over time, the $1 readers who do choose to stay pay the full rate and renew as often as those with less heavily discounted introductory offers. So all that was lost for the Globe was some income from the early cancellations.

There’s additional logic to the practice. It costs next to nothing to serve one additional subscriber. The paper captures an email address and can then send any number of solicitations and newsletters. The latter carry advertising. Also, a growing number of paid subscribers functions as a sales tool for advertising placements on the site.

Stretching back to print-only days for newspapers, it has always been an axiom that former subscribers are the best prospects, much better than any mailing list for targeted offers.

That principle continues for paid digital, Phil Schroder, a McClatchy audience director executive, argued in a recent essay for the International News Media Association:

We have worked diligently with our customer service teams and the representatives at our call centers to have the right resources when a subscriber calls in to cancel. When a subscriber asks to cancel, our representative first probes to see what is causing the subscriber to want to cancel. …

Then our representatives employ a variety of tactics based on the specific stop reason. For instance, if the cancellation is based on price, they will offer a lower price based on what a customer may have been paying prior to an increase or based on a set of rate parameters that we have given them. Our goal is to keep the customer while also balancing revenue goals, so this can be a tricky process. We monitor rate changes with help from our business intelligence team and coach representatives as needed when they deviate too far off the goal.

So on balance, the bargaining and bargains apparently are working.

Still, I find the practice odd and, in some ways, objectionable. Intro deals cannot be done by check or other one-time payment. Instead, so-called “easy pay” is required — a charge to a credit card that then flips to automatic renewal at the end of the trial period.

None of the three newspapers in my sample provided notice that a higher rate was kicking in. The practice might better be termed “sneaky pay.”

Plus, don’t the drastically low, wait-wait-don’t-quit offers play for suckers those who go the full pay route without objection? Right now I am paying $4 per four weeks for The Boston Globe while other subscribers have transitioned to $27.72.

It turns out, as Nieman Lab reported earlier this month, that the Federal Trade Commission also has trouble with this generation of negative option/must cancel deals — for newspaper subscriptions but also for other renewals like health club memberships. The FTC particularly objects to requiring that cancellations be by phone, often with long delays.

From my earlier experience covering the FTC rules on labeling sponsored content, their approach is to promulgate a rule, bring enforcement actions against a few violators, then rely on self-policing.

I asked Matt Lindsay, whose Mather Economics is a leading consultant to newspapers on paid digital, for an expert perspective. While preferring not to comment on my experiment or specific papers, he made these points:

  • “Many organizations are moving to one click to cancel — a low friction experience that may make it easier to get them back.”
  • Data can help identify which subscribers are likely to take a full price increase and which should be brought along with gradual increases. We will see more offers where price gradations are targeted by the prospect’s route through the so-called “funnel” to a trial and then a full subscription.
  • A readership segment games the system by regularly canceling after the intro runs out, then starting all over again. “It’s not a large group, and for most publishers, it would be more trouble than it’s worth to police them.”

My own take: Many outlets are still fairly new to the concentrated push to build out paid digital. Retention logically becomes a focus after a year or two of upping your sales game. I do fear that the cancellation labyrinth ends up pushing down the road finding out whether your news report is really worth full price. Plus, bad customer service along with a soupcon of deception isn’t going to help the brand.

This article was originally published Nov. 22, 2021.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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  • I just did this with my Wisconsin State Journal digital subscription in Madison. I got a letter in the mail last week saying my rate would go up from $9.99 to $19.99 a month. I could only cancel by calling a number they provided. After being on hold for about 10 minutes, I talked to a representative who – after I said I wanted to cancel – very quickly and easily agreed to continue my rate at $9.99 (because I was a “longtime subscriber”). I probably could have bargained him down further but I think $9.99 is a fair price. (We’ll see whether that continues to be the case after Lee Enterprises is sold and staff likely is cut further.)