Sunday, March 08, 2009

Of Newspapers and Nails

March 8, 2009, 6:15 a.m.

A Multiple-Variable Analysis of Newspaper Delivery
(brought to you by*)

What a treat to open my kitchen door at 4:30 this rainy Sunday morning and find two newspapers, neatly wrapped with their protective plastic covering, waiting side-by-side less than three feet from my door.

It's not every day that starts that way. And that's the subject of this morning's blog entry.

A convergence of forces have made these tough times for newspapers. Going public meant some initial infusions of cash, but also brought Wall Street's insistence on ever-increasing profits. The Internet generation's gone electronic; and even giving away free hard copy newspapers in college dorms hasn't reversed that trend -- nor has giving away the content with online editions helped their bottom line. Now even those students' newspaper-addicted parents are doing more newspaper reading on the Internet. Craig's List has taken much of the lucrative classified ad revenue. Newsprint and ink costs keep going up. And now general ad revenue is also down as the global economy collapses around every business. The Rocky Mountain News, once one of my favorites, is only the latest in a string of closing newspapers.

Meanwhile, as everyone struggles to find alternative business models for newspapers some are appearing. That was a part of the discussion six weeks ago in Nicholas Johnson, "Whither Newspapers," January 18, 2009.

This morning's commentary is much more modest. It involves the application of a proverb, with origins going back to the 14th Century, to the newspaper industry's woes:

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
And what is "the nail" in this analogy?

Newspaper delivery.

I read a number of newspapers with some regularity, but only four in hard copy, two of which are delivered to my home daily.

Permit me to preface what I am about to say with some qualifiers. (a) I used to deliver newspapers in the same neighborhood to which I have now returned to live in the old family house. It is a thankless job, and I have nothing but appreciation for those who are willing to provide this service for much less pay than reason and equity would dictate. (b) Home delivery of hard copy newspapers is not a business model in which I'd be willing to invest my money -- for some of the reasons I've set forth above, and more. (Some of the alternatives are discussed in the "Whither Newspapers?" blog entry, linked above.)

So I don't think newspapers should have to provide home delivery at all.

All I'm about to suggest is that, if they are going to provide that service then there are some fundamentals requiring a little more attention.

As I mentioned, I have home delivery of two newspapers (both of which will remain nameless), so I have two different approaches to newspaper home delivery to compare.

Here is a quick once-over of what seem to me the relevant elements of home delivery.

1. Does the paper come every day, or are there more than a statistically insignificant number of days when it doesn't arrive at all?

2. Is there a regular time at which it arrives?

3. Is there a consistent location where the paper can be found?

4. When there is a problem with delivery (say, there's no paper well past the promised delivery time) can the subscriber explain the situation to a human, or must s/he try to place the round pegs of concern into the square holes of a computerized system?

Here has been my experience:

1. One of the papers comes every day. The other has a significant number of days when it does not arrive at all.

2. One of the papers usually arrives by 3:30 in the morning. The other may come at any time, when it comes at all, normally between, say, 5:00 and 8:00 a.m.

3. One of the papers is almost always just outside the kitchen door. The other requires a daily scavenger hunt -- sometimes it's under a bush, sometimes out by the city street, sometimes in winter hidden in a snow drift, and occasionally by the kitchen door (as it was this morning).

4. The newspaper that rarely requires a call has a human to answer the phone. The newspaper that often needs to be called has a computer that explains humans can only be reached during "regular business hours" -- when those humans sometimes explain that newspapers can no longer be delivered that late in the day.

One variable is manageable by a subscriber.

If the paper always comes, and is in the same place when it does, but at various times, one can look in that place and quickly see it's either there or it's not. If it always comes, and at about the same time, but may be anywhere, the subscriber can go on the scavenger hunt at the same time every day, knowing the paper will ultimately be found somewhere on or near the property.

It's the multiple variables that create the problem. When one doesn't know whether it's going to be delivered at all or not, or what time it will be if it is, or where it is to be found on a given day, the only way to receive the paper is to undertake periodic searches of the entire property during the morning hours, never knowing if it has been delivered or not, or where it may have been left.

Like I say, I (a) really appreciated not having to search for a paper in the rain this morning, (b) have great appreciation for what delivery persons go through, and suspect much of the problem is that they're not being paid enough to be able to keep the job for long, (c) don't think newspapers should have to provide home delivery of hard copy papers at all, and (d) am not making a special appeal for the delivery of my paper. The disparity between these two newspapers' delivery practices has existed for years in spite of periodic suggestions to management; and it is highly unlikely it is limited to one neighborhood.

No, this "multiple-variable analysis of newspaper delivery" is simply provided as yet one more good will offering, without charge, to a newspaper industry that has played a major role in my life over decades in a variety of ways and that I would like to see survive.

It's merely a reminder that in 21st Century business, as well as 14th Century warfare, success often turns on attention to detail -- like the nails in horseshoes and the home delivery of newspapers. Maintaining profits by cutting back on basic services has seldom if ever been a sure road to corporate survival.

And I do hope you found this blog entry promptly and properly delivered to your computer this morning.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Anonymous said...

You outline exactly why I canceled my home delivery subscription of the Press Citizen. The thing that put it over the top was finally reaching a person who just giggled when said I was disappointed enough that I might cancel my paper delivery.

I do miss having it at the door, but not enough to put up the poor attitude of PC employees.

Anonymous said...

A former Rocky Mt. News subscriber said her paper was delivered to her doorstep on time by children from her neighborhood (as my sons did for Nick's mother) for many years. Then that was replace by a man who would drive by and throw her paper in a water filled ditch several hundred feet from her house.

She was unable to find anyone at the Rocky Mt. News that thought that was a problem and she became a former subscriber. In my case I canceled my PC subscription when the circulation manager refused to take my call.

sajohnson said...

"Maintaining profits by cutting back on basic services has seldom if ever been a sure road to corporate survival."

Very true, and a number of businesses are going under for this reason.

Almost everyone I know has several stories of poor customer service. It seems that those in charge are greedy, selfish, shortsighted, and/or stupid. They are apparently only concerned about this quarter's profits. It's sad to see once respectable companies like Sears go downhill for this reason.

Circuit City just went out of business after 60 years, at least partly due to poor customer service. Their business model seemed to be, "Take the customer's money and kick 'em out the door". I'm sure that made a few people very rich. Too bad everyone else is out of a job.