Lee’s pricing model for ‘members’ alienates longtime readers

At almost 77, my Midwestern mother has a complicated relationship with her local newspaper. For more than half her life, she’s been a daily subscriber. When she goes on vacation, she has a neighbor save the papers for her so she can go through them upon her return. She clips out obituaries and articles about people she knows in the Central Illinois town where I grew up.

So it pained me to hear that she’s cancelled her print newspaper subscription. As of May, my mom became a digital-only subscriber for $12 a month, a promotional rate that will increase to $18 a month unless she calls to negotiate when it expires, which I know she will. Her decision–and the reason behind it, exemplifies where we’re at in the news business. It’s also a lesson for publishers in how better to communicate with long-time readers. If we can’t get it right, local journalism isn’t going to survive.

For my mom, it started with a letter, although her irritation with the Decatur Herald & Review has been growing as it’s become smaller, the customer service representatives answer the phone from a different city and the printing operations moved out of town, meaning the late sports scores are no longer included in the final print edition.

I’ve tried to explain the business of this to her, noting that newsprint costs have increased even as advertising revenue has continued to fall. We’ve had long talks about how the Internet has disrupted the business model that sustained newspapers for the decades she has been reading them, and she listens politely, but the bottom line is her own bottom line as a senior on a fixed income. Her newspaper will cost her an additional $13 a month more when Lee Enterprises, which owns the Herald & Review, moves to a new subscriber model.

The letter she received in early March thanked her for supporting quality, local journalism. And it is. Last year the Herald & Review exposed a $2.7 million cost overrun in a dredging project on Lake Decatur that was being billed to the taxpayers. Using Freedom of Information requests, the paper discovered that the contractor and a project consultant blamed each other for a mistake that led to the additional expense.

The letter didn’t mention that story, only that Herald & Review was moving to a “membership” model for subscribers. It was signed, impersonally, by the “Customer Service Department.”

A  few days after getting the letter, my mom went out to lunch with some old high school friends. She reported back to me that the newspaper increase was the “No. 1 topic” of conversation. What irritated her and her friends most is that each of them seemed to be paying a different amount. My mom said she didn’t disclose the bargain price she had negotiated, which was far less than most of her friends.

“At another luncheon Luella sat next to me talking about the paper, and  she got it Sunday through Saturday and was paying $60 a month,” Mom relayed to me after I deputized her to do some additional reporting for me. “Julie lives in Springfield and pays $178 for 13 weeks. Bev was going to call them that afternoon. Phyllis was going to check with Dick on the bill.” A longtime friend told Mom that at her beauty shop, “my gal told me that people were cancelling right and left.”

I assured my mom that I’d get to the bottom of this. After all, I’m a journalist and former business reporter for The Washington Post. I searched the quarterly investor reports from Lee Enterprises for news about the new membership model but didn’t find much. This is not something my mother would have done or known how to do, which is why journalism exists. We pour through documents, show up at meetings, ask questions, demand that our elected politicians be accountable to us and to our readers and viewers, the taxpayers. We do this on behalf of the communities we serve, and many of us need to do a better job of explaining this to our readers.

I reached out to Tracy Rouch, director of public relations for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the flagship newspaper in the Lee Enterprises chain. I congratulated her on the paper’s recent win after Tony Messenger won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

“This is handled at the corporate level and wanted to make sure I pass it along to the person who handles their interview requests, Charles Arms,” Rouch wrote back to me in an email. “I just heard back from him (as he was out on vacation this week) and he said since they just launched the program, they are not prepared to comment at this time.”

I went back to my mom to find out if she’d learned anything more from “Dani,” the customer service representative with whom she’d been communicating since the letter arrived in the mail.

“That’s one thing I shared with Dani in my first call with her a month ago is that I thought those price increases were impossible for many of the senior citizens who have supported the H&R all their lives and who are now living on a fixed income,” my mom told me. “I also feel bad for the carriers who are losing customers because people are just simply canceling the subscriptions–I mean memberships– because of the increase and because so many are realizing that they’ve been paying different amounts to the H&R for the same papers on the same days of the week. People talk and, when they find out that neighbors are paying different amounts for the same product, they get upset.”

Like many in her circle in the middle of the country, my mom has become more distrustful of news, buying into the narrative of “fake news” and rampant media bias. I’m one of the good ones because I’m her daughter, but she doesn’t really like journalists. She trusts us about as much as she trusts a solicitor trying to sell her something over the telephone. She retrieves her newspaper from the front stoop every morning but also reaches for her phone to check Facebook and turns on national cable news. I wonder if she will reach for the Herald & Review online in the same way. I wonder if the other subscribers, even the younger ones, will even bother.

I don’t know if the new membership model that Lee rolled out is the answer to this.  I simply don’t have enough information to say. (I tried, Mom). Public radio has long operated on membership drives and models, and journalism non-profits like City Bureau in Chicago rely on them. The $8-a-month bronze level Press Club membership at City Bureau is advertised as “the same price as Netflix, but for a stronger democracy,” a compelling pitch. But public radio and City Bureau are not profit-driven corporations; Lee is.

As someone who is deeply invested in this business as a journalist and a professor, I do think my mom is on to something when she tells me that she can’t understand how a company can sell a product to various people for such different prices.

That deserves an answer.

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Share our journalism