SeattleTimeswebsiteDear Seattle Times executives,

I’m writing you in the traditional letter-to-the-editor format because it’s one with which I’m certain you’re familiar. After all, you recently used it in your “Dear Seattle Times subscribers” summer e-newsletter. I’m also uncertain, based on the experiences I’m about to describe, if you’d understand anything more than an electronic replica of a paper letter.

And I now say this as a newly former subscriber.

Why do I have doubts about your ability to be e-literate? In the e-update, Editor Kathy Best used the word “online” once (albeit in lockstep with “and in print”). However, she never mentioned the words “digital,” mobile,” or – perhaps because it’s ink-stained heresy – “online first” or “online only.”

I might overlook this as an oversight, or as a misguided attempt to not scare away print subscribers, if it wasn’t for the evidence that your digital disconnect goes beyond wording. The Seattle Times clearly doesn’t get that a huge part of the digital attraction of news that one pays for isn’t just a high level of journalism, it’s the entire subscriber experience.

At the Seattle Times – a Pulitizer-Prize winning, major metropolitan news organization – that digital subscriber experience runs the gamut from the startlingly mediocre to the outright sucky.

SeattleTimesbilltopInability to get full bill details electronically. Wanting to oxymoronically save a few trees when paying for my print subscription, I signed up for the MyTimes Subscriber Services website and email billing. Then the first email bills arrived, listing only the amount due and due date. Odd, I thought. Where’s the billing period? What’s the rate? I clicked through to the website. No additional information to tell me when the subscription ended, or if the rate had changed (it sometimes does). There must be a mistake.

No mistake. Several customer service phone calls and emails later, your official word was, “At this time those details you are looking for are not available online or with e-billing.” I was told I’d have to call in or send email every time I received a bill to get baseline information that was on every paper bill, as this was considered an “advanced billing feature.”

I gave up and switched back to paper bills. Sorry, Gaea. To put this into perspective, Comcast has more descriptive and more complete web billing. Yes: Comcast beats you for bill clarity.

Waste_Paper_Still_Wanted_Art.IWMPST14666Disappearing vacation stop credits. As many other newspapers did and still do, you used to allow me to stop physical paper delivery for vacations and receive credit (or to “donate” the papers to local schools for educational purposes, presumably building papier-mâché models). But in February 2013, the Times “changed the vacation credit policy” as it noted in an email. By “changed,” of course, you meant “eliminated.”

I can still put a hold on paper delivery. But now you claim it costs too much to give me credit, since you say it’s expensive to enforce stops and starts with carriers, and many sections of the paper “are ordered 30 days in advance” (I trust those are your non-news sections). These excuses, surprisingly, have nothing to do with the expected and unmentioned reason of the ongoing expense of covering news. Instead, you remind me, “our subscribers have full electronic access to our digital offerings that are included as part of their subscription. These include the Print Replica and mobile apps.”

Yeah. About that app.

Brain-dead mobile app. It’s not that the Seattle Times mobile app just provides an equivalent experience to the Seattle Times website. It’s worse. There is no search (or if there is, it requires its own search function to find, at least in Android).

What appears on the Top News home screen is often listed in nonsensical order. Just this Sunday, a classical music review, a book review and a feature on how to improve fertility with good nutrition got higher billing than the breaking news of a Maryland roller coaster failure and a brand-new local business story that Boeing was looking to profit from junked jets (this was billed as “NEW,” but buried nearly at the bottom of the second screen).

SeattleTimesappAnd good luck trying to find that favorite columnist (like Danny Westneat or Nicole Brodeur), as my wife frequently tells me. This unique local content is at the mercy of endless scrolling through multiple Local screens to try and figure out where either Easter Egg has been hidden on a given day.

Now, I do get this. Times (so to speak) are tough. Gannett and Tribune are partitioning newspapers from their other media businesses as though they’re quarantining latent carriers of economic Ebola. Yet your crappy digital experience also smacks of a “this too shall pass” mindset – that is, if you just cut-and-paste the same print journalism to digital platforms with a pixel-perfect Silly Putty transfer, you don’t have to do anything else.

But your friends (from whom you reprint much content) at the New York Times do seem to get the short-sighted nature of that approach. They have killer mobile apps (with search). They have lots of digital-only or digital-first content. The electronic invoices are complete and understandable. And somehow, they still give credit for vacation stops.

The bottom line is if you’re going to go digital as a news business, you have to fully commit. This equivalent of “half-pregnant” is half-assed. Those of us in every age group who live mobile- and digital-first lives expect to receive our news, manage our subscriptions and be treated as customers in the same consistent way.

You’re not simply discouraging digitally savvy subscribers. You’re actively chasing us away.

Frank Catalano
2007-2014

Comments

  • Guest

    I’m with you 100%, Frank. I just cancelled the Seattle Times — by phone — after getting my renewal notice — by mail. What a backwards company.

    The real tragedy is their pricing. I’d pay some $ for a site that gave me high-quality local news, but 90% of what the Seattle Times prints — often on its front page — is wire stories that I can find on Google News for free. I found myself recycling literally bags full of Sunday editions in which I found 10 or fewer local articles. What came as a sheaf of newsprint ended up as a pamphlet of information.

    It’s pretty sad that Seattle’s lone serious newspaper is still out-contented by The Stranger, which if you even has the same “we moved here before you, so get the fuck out of my city” editorial bent as the Seattle Times does. Just ignore the swearing and weed ads and it’s a free version of the ST.

  • http://www.extendedresults.com/ Patrick Husting

    What took you so long? I did that like 6 years ago… :o)

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It took me so long because I appreciate and want to support local journalism (I was a long-time subscriber to the Seattle PI before I was forced to switch to the Times after the PI’s physical demise). But honestly, I can’t stomach the crappy subscriber experience anymore. The Times even refers to itself as a “new media” company in its local NPR underwriting, terminology that itself is now old school. Which may itself unexpectedly reveal a lot about the business side of the paper.

      • Bart C

        Check out the Seattle Times app for Windows 8, no pay wall and recently released.

  • LMyer

    Completely agree Frank — you nailed it.

  • Guest

    I’d also argue that it seems like they keep making cuts to save the paper as opposed to investing in reporting real stories of value to save the paper. I haven’t paid for the Seattle Times for years because they aren’t investing in value-added content.

  • Steve

    Thanks for saving me some sympathy for the poor Seattle Times when a couple of times per month I read one of their original articles and a begging pop-up appears.

  • elbowman

    Frank, I can’t support your position. Your online publication supports itself by primarily copying and pasting content from original news sources, or linking to them. (Example, Taylor Soper’s entire pro-Uber/Lyft/Sidecar ‘ride sharing’ series.)

    A Guest mentions (verb tense aside), “but 90% of what the Seattle Times prints — often on its front page — is wire stories that I can find on Google News for free.” Google News is similar in style to GeekWire. It’s a link dump. Where Google simply aggregates and displays original news from sources like The Seattle Times.

    What happens when all the ‘digitals’ cancel all their original news source subscriptions and simply go to Google News for their information? The links to all those original news stories dry up and go away. Google News ceases to exist, and GeekWire goes with it.

    You have no business without original source reporting to link your ‘stories’ to, as you bite the hand that feeds you.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      No one should misinterpret my words to mean that I’m against paying for news content and original reporting. Because that’s the opposite of what I imply and practice. For example, I still pay for the New York Times not only for its original reporting, but also for its excellent digital product and customer service (I only get the physical paper on the weekends).

      The Seattle Times, if it’s going to talk the “new media” talk, needs to walk the new media walk. Not just in reporting and posting original news, but in packaging it intelligently for mobile devices and in digital subscriber services. Once that happens, I’ll happily consider re-subscribing.

      As a freelance columnist for GeekWire, I can’t speak for everyone, but I stand behind the originality and content of what I write. And GeekWire has broken a number of stories in tech, both locally and nationally.

      • johnhcook

        Just to echo Frank’s comments, GeekWire is not an aggregation site as you claim. We pride ourselves on original reporting and news gathering, something that Todd Bishop and I have done throughout our careers on the technology news beat here in the NW.

        Just as an example: Of the past 15 stories written on GeekWire, 15 are based on original sourcing and reporting — including first-hand reports from the TechFestNW conference in Portland where we had two reporters covering the event; a feature story on App Camp for Girls; a small financing news story on Seattle startup Appuri which we discovered by digging through SEC filings and included an interview of the CEO; Frank’s column which you are reading in this space; our original radio show program and the news scoop we just posted about the tech workshop Makerhaus closing its doors.

        You are certainly free to criticize our editorial choices at GeekWire, but to claim that we are simply regurgitating other people’s work is misguided.

    • Guest

      Elbow, I’m sorry but you’re misguided. GeekWire reports on what’s going on. The Seattle Times, for the most part, does what Google News does — it copies articles from other publications (paying for the privilege). Occasionally the ST will feature one of its whiny columnists on the front page and rarely it will do a bit of original reporting. For that they expect us to pay $20 a month.
      Sorry, Elbow, but the ST has to go. Get used to the Stranger and the Seattle Weekly, who do pretty much the same level of output as the ST does with a lot less wasted newsprint.

      • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

        Thanks for your comment as it relates to GeekWire.

        I’d echo what John said above. GeekWire is run day-to-day by two former newspaper reporters. We both love breaking news and getting scoops, and we’ve done our best to assemble a team that feels the same way.

        That said, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the Seattle Times for the quality of its journalists. I’ve visited their newsroom and competed against their reporters for years, and while they may not be the most prolific bunch around, they do care about journalism, and many of them are very good at it.

        I think it’s more justifiable to criticize the Seattle Times’ business decisions, some of which are manifested in Frank’s column.

        My personal take on the Seattle Times is that they (and other newspapers) made a fundamental mistake when they put up their paywalls. The paywall concept could actually work in the long run, if the papers simultaneously provided some compelling additional value, vs. simply telling their customers that they’d now have to pay for something they previously received for free.

        At least give me a tote bag or something!

        As I was reading Frank’s column, I found myself empathizing with him as a consumer, and with the Seattle Times as someone involved in running a (much smaller) media business.

        It’s not easy! I’m sure there are people who could write a similar rant about GeekWire, and then some. No business is perfect. I’ll take Elbowman’s comment as feedback that we’re not breaking enough news, and we need to improve. I totally agree with that — we can never break enough news.

        One of the realities of the world is that no site can possibly break every story itself. To give readers the breadth of perspective that we want GeekWire to provide, we inevitably end up reporting and linking to some stories that have been reported first elsewhere.

        When we do this, we do our best to give prominent credit to the original source and hopefully add our own unique perspective, insight and original details about the story.

        We’re proud of our team, and we’re doing our best to build a sustainable media business by providing as much value as possible to the community and to the people who read and support GeekWire.

  • http://www.KristinBennett.com Kristin Bennett

    Didn’t even know they were still around…

  • Kathy Best

    While I disagree with many of your points, Frank, I agree completely that our mobile experience needs to be miles better than it is today. That’s why we teamed up with Ratio to produce a seattletimes.com app for Windows 8.1-enabled tablets and phones that launched a few weeks ago. Although that’s a small segment of the market, the project allowed us to develop skills that are helping us with the much bigger, much more complicated and much-needed conversion of st.com to a responsive site complete with search capability that will allow readers to quickly and easily surface stories, listings and visual content. No one wants that to happen more quickly than our newsroom. We are producing compelling photos, videos and interactive graphics to complement our enterprise, features and investigative reporting. We want to give readers an immersive reading experience that combines all those elements. And we can’t wait for a responsive design that will seamlessly lead people through the multiple layers of our site on every screen size. Which leads me to my vehement disagreement with one of your points. Every day, Seattle Times journalists produce scores of original, local blog posts, stories, photos and graphics, starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending sometimes well after midnight. Because of the costs of printing and distributing newsprint, only a fraction of that digital content ends up in the paper. Nonetheless, our competitors seem to find it since I frequently hear versions of our work on radio and TV or read it on other websites — sometimes with credit, often without. So we’ll miss you, Frank. But if you care about being a well-informed citizen of Seattle, you’ll be missing out by missing us.

    • news reader

      Wow. I don’t mean to pile on, but if Ratio really recommended the development of a Windows 8.1 app before a responsive website, they are not doing you any favors.

      • Kathy Best

        It was a joint venture with Microsoft. Like I said, it was an opportunity to develop skills we needed to tackle responsive. Ratio was a great partner. We hired them because of their experience with Windows. The result is lovely and evidence of where we hope to go. Kathy Best

        • Guest

          Good of you to chime in, Kathy. I have a beef with the ST charging me one of my free articles that is taken from another news source (i.e., AP). If it’s one of your original writers, fine.

          That said, the decline of investigative journalism at the ST diminishes the value of what the paper offers. I have corresponded with 3 highly competent journalists over the years talking about tips on stories, etc., and they keep talking about how their pay keeps getting cut, etc.

          If there was an investment in journalism to save the paper as opposed to cutting costs to save the paper, maybe I’d be back. But I don’t see it happening. Best defense is a good offense and cutting costs to the bone doesn’t count.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Kathy, I appreciate your response. However, you say you “disagree with many” of my points, but it’s not clear which ones. The poor e-billing experience? The vacation stop policy and how it’s explained? You have addressed — and seem to agree with — the challenging mobile app matter, as I specify I’m on Android. But my two other primary points, which have to do with frustration as a consumer about digital subscriber services, aren’t mentioned in your comment.

      It’s because of the Seattle Times’ “unique local content” (as I wrote) that I didn’t cancel when I first hit roadblocks and instead struggled with them for more than a year. For example, I was told in an email from subscriber services in April 2013 that detailed online and e-billing was “under development.” I was patient. But in May 2014, I was told in a email that this still was an “additional feature” under consideration.

      I also don’t understand why you express “vehement disagreement” with a point I didn’t actually make. None of my criticism is about the newsroom, the quality of the journalism, or the amount of digital content (I realize the Seattle Times, like the New York Times, does digital-only enhancements and content). But I do take issue with the Seattle Times’ business and technology decisions that make it difficult and frustrating to experience those stories, photos, videos and interactive elements as a paying subscriber.

      My wife has favorite Seattle Times columnists (listed). I have favorite ones, too (not mentioned). We both see benefit in strong local reporting. I also believe in paying for original news, and we did so for years with the Seattle Times. Fix the subscriber experience frustrations, and we may be back.

    • Guest

      Kathy, your intentions sound good. I’ll be looking to see how the Seattle Times competes in the modern media world.

      I do, however, question your allocation of resources. If indeed you are working your people “starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending sometimes well after midnight,” what am I receiving as the fruit of this labor? In an era when every curmudgeon can take to Tumblr to vent his or her spleen, with instant feedback and no length limits, what is the value of paying to read the same few columnists whine about the change that has come to our city? In a world in which videos and photos can be uploaded and shared instantly for free, what makes the Seattle Times’s photos more valuable than the most highly-rated Flickr and Instagram feeds’? Given that we can obtain Associated Press wire feeds directly at no charge, why do we need the Seattle Times to print other companies’ articles, and to charge for us to read them, without adding any value to them? What am I as a reader meant to do with multiple Sunday sections that consist entirely of advertising?

      Kathy, I want to see Seattle have a good daily newspaper. I don’t want to pay $20 a month to receive padding, pith, and promotions. Think of we the readers, not they the advertisers, as your customers, and you’ll do the right thing. As it stands we have little faith that the Seattle Times is serving its home market.

      • gy

        Seriously? Do you not know anything about how content marketing works? There is nothing, absolutely nothing that won’t be pirated off Seattletimes.com in a second. If that’s what you’re looking for, then by all means, go to the bot sites. They’ll be perfect for you.

    • margaretbartley

      Kathy,
      I don’t think he was ONLY talking about how the mobile app worked. What I picked up on was that content is also lacking.

      I’ve often wished the local paper would print a “what’s happening” feature of the various local governmental agencies, committees, work groups, etc that are open to the public, with time, date, location and agenda. It would also be nice to have some reports back on those activities. I used to live in Medina, and I would get a local paper delivered to my mailbox with information about their Land Use commission meetings and decisions. I thing it would be very interesting to know about public Library meetings, Port of Seattle meetings, City and County council meetings and agendas ahead of time. This is the kind of thing local papers can do well.

      I don’t need to subscribe to the local paper to read about the same stories I can find on line for free.

      The Times could set up a system maintainable by a clerical worker to post these government agency meetings, and only send reporters to the important ones.

      • sarahk

        And boy oh boy, would that deliver the ad dollars they need. it’s a pure hockey stick!!

    • http://texrat.net/ texrat

      Smaller paragraphs are fun. Many writers use and enjoy them.

  • Mike

    The Seattle Times called me at 9pm begging for me to subscribe… that was enough for me, I hung up.

    • company

      Wow. A true tough guy. You hung up – shazaam!

  • wrpickard

    Frank, they don’t read Geekwire either.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Kathy Best clearly did (at least, from the comments). So I’m hoping she takes the observations and passes them along to the subscriber and technology arms of the Seattle Times, even if they don’t read it here.

  • Lynne

    I occasionally have someone ring my bell to sell the print edition and wonder if ANYONE is still getting print newspapers. In a town filled with tree-huggers (myself included), I would think dropping pounds of paper on doorsteps each day would be ancient history, given all the PC’s and mobile devices we all own.

    Yes, publishers are going to have to get down and digital if they want to remain in business. There are just way too many great (and free) news aggregation tools on the web to make the print or sub-par digital subscription model a compelling one today.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Lynne, as a side note, there is anecdotal evidence (and, as I recall, a few studies — I don’t have them handy, though) that there is value in some level of physical newspaper distribution. Sunday (and perhaps weekend) papers, generally, still seem to be read and valued more than their weekday counterparts, perhaps indicating how reading a physical newspaper has gone from being a daily news information must-have to an leisure relaxation activity.

      Some papers have discussed or experimented with reducing paper publication from 7 days a week to fewer, while still updating the website daily. There’s also a solid marketing reason to have some kind of physical presence to maintain awareness (I continue to think the Seattle PI would be much more prominent in people’s minds if it still had some limited physical presence, but the one-time Joint Operating Agreement with the Seattle Times made that unlikely).

      Overall, I agree — for any newspaper (and I’m not saying this is the case at the Seattle Times) a primary focus on 7x weekly paper publishing is a potentially fatal distraction. But the digital product has to exceed the physical, not just in content, but (as I note) in subscriber services and execution.

      • Lynne

        I know that there are many folks who do like to spend Sunday’s wading through the actual paper. I’m an “e-gal” who prefers reading books (papers, mags, etc) on a tablet rather than touching the pages, but understand others have a preference for the more tactile format. In the end, I think it really needs to be about the CONTENT and CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE as your original piece points out. I hope publishers take note of your article. Thanks, Frank!

  • Paul_Owen

    Frank, your scree against ST is a joke. You’re “up in arms” about the lousy digital experience, but you’re not being honest. The Times’ problem isn’t UX, it’s ad revenue. The print newspaper ad market has declined from $14 billion to less than $4 billion in 10 years. See link.

    http://arnoldit.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/newspaper-advertising-revenue.pngThe digital news ad market has grown

    Simultaneously, online news ad revenue has increased to nearly $1 billion a year. Print ads, as lousy as they are, still dwarf online ad revenue.

    The NYT isn’t much better, even though you laud their UX. NYT newsroom payroll exceeds $200 million (that’s how they get those awesome stories, which you correctly reward by subscribing). NYT is making a profit, but just barely. It works for NYT because the news market is global, not limited to the driving range of ST’s delivery trucks. If given a budget of $20/mo for news would you pick ST or NYT (or any daily other than NYT for that matter)?

    The answer for the ST starts with revenue. Not the paltry online ad market that’s 1/14th the size of 2004’s print ad market. Something new and better. Maybe we’ll move to a private news model where a minority of wealthy individuals and organizations pay large sums to get local news that’s error checked and copy edited. Not the free crap I see on my FB feed or Buzz Feed.

    Sorry to rant. But I know you know better and if we’re going to fix this problem then you’re the guy we’re looking to to show us the way. UX is great, but please start with the revenue problem.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Paul, you have every right to rank right back. But my rant is no joke; it honestly describes the customer experience. I agree revenue is a key driver. But the Seattle Times is over-promising and under-delivering when it presents itself as a “new media” company. And that won’t help its subscriber revenues.

      Now, other revenue ideas? That may be a future column.

      • conor

        Or, more likely, they’re just dead. hundreds of very smart folks have strained and stressed to answer the revenue question across dying papers around the country. it’s not there. Quit looking. you know you’ll get your news from Fox News, AllThingsD and Espn, and that will be good enough.

  • Eastside

    Nice artical, however don’t be so smug. Where is the geek wire ipad app. Why does the current app crash so often

    • Guest

      You don’t need an app to read GeekWire on iPad. Just open up Chrome and type “gee” in the address bar. Autocomplete will do the rest.

  • Dayne Turgeon

    Dayne Turgeon here, Customer Relations
    Manager for The Seattle Times. I wanted to speak to the points you raised that
    weren’t covered in the earlier post by Editor Kathy Best.

    Regarding our e-billing solution, you are
    100% correct – it is less than customers deserve and expect from us. As a
    result of our recently having simplified our sign-in process, our prior, better
    solution for billing was lost. While the sign-in change drove significant
    customer improvements, we lost some functionality in this one area. We are
    currently working to provide an e-bill solution that will better serve
    customers and expect it to be in place within the next few months.

    As for vacation credits, we do still
    provide vacation credits for print subscribers when the stop is longer than 30
    days, but less than 120. Newspapers have gone about this practice in different
    ways and many have ceased offering vacation stops.

    The Seattle Times values its customers and is
    committed to a positive customer experience.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Thanks Dayne. I appreciate you addressing both matters directly. Getting a decent e-mail/online billing solution in place would be a great improvement after many months of frustration. As to vacation stop credit, 30 days is a pretty long required minimum vacation. But I’m willing to cede the vacation stop issue if there’s a Seattle Times smartphone app that significantly improves the mobile reading experience, connected or not.

  • assassinave

    I am Groot!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Well, since that can mean anything, depending on circumstance and intonation (as well as how Groot feels at the moment) … thanks. I think.

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