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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

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