JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Buying Newspapers From A Skunk

I’m about to break two rules.

  • Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
  • Never get in a pissing match with a skunk.

This one’s a two’fer because it’s the skunk that buys ink by the barrel.

The skunk is The Bismarck Tribune, which has just pulled off the slickest “bait-and-switch” gambit I’ve seen in a long, long time, and somebody ought to go to the pokey. Or at least they need to get reported to the Better Business Bureau, which I will probably do.

Here’s a summary of what they just did:

On Jan. 16, I got a letter from the Tribune telling me the cost of my subscription was going up, from $42.50 per month to $51, a 20 percent price increase. It was the fourth price increase in 2½ years, going from 28 bucks and change in 2015 to $51, an increase of more than 80 percent.

I decided the value wasn’t there at that price and called them and canceled. Three days later, on Jan. 19, I got an e-mail from the Tribune telling me I could call them to discuss getting a subscription for “as low as $45 a month” or I could sign up on line for three, six or 12 months at $47 per month. I declined. I was still angry.

A couple of days later, I was talking to a friend and he said he had canceled his subscription, too, and they had offered him a rate of $37.50 to get him back, and he took it. He said I should call them back. So I did — on Jan. 23.

Sure enough, they said they would give me a lower rate, $39.50, which confirmed how arbitrary their rate schedule is. I now had offers at $45, $47 and $39.50. And my friend was getting it at $37.50. I said OK, I’ll take the $39.50, and I’d like to give them a credit card number and pay for a year in advance at that rate. The nice lady on the phone said no, you have to pay month to month. Uh oh. Red flag.

I said I’d really like to pay for a year in advance, so we don’t have to have this conversation again next month. “Oh, it won’t be that soon,” she replied.

She lied. Six days.

On Jan. 29, just six days after I signed up to subscribe at $39.50 a month, they sent me a letter that said “effective Feb. 24, 2018, your subscription rate will change to $47.50 per month.”

WTF? How can any business pull a sleazy trick like that? Sell me something at one price, and then raise the price 20 percent six days later. I’m tempted to tell them to cancel my subscription right now.

But damn, I’m going to feel really bad about not getting my local paper. I’ve always been fascinated by newspapers. My mother said that I was reading the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday paper before I was in school. Somewhere in old photo files there’s a picture of me propped up against the dining room furnace register (my favorite winter reading place) when I was 6 or 7 years old reading the Sunday paper.

When I was 12 or 13, I inherited the job of actually delivering the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune in Hettinger, N.D., when the longtime carrier, whose name I forget now — if it was you, and you’re reading this, please remind me — outgrew it.

I met the train every Sunday about 6 a.m. pulling a wagon in the summer and a sled in the winter and picked up the big bundle of Minneapolis Sunday Tribunes the station agent pulled from the boxcar and dropped on the platform  somewhere around 50 or 60 of them, I think — and trudged around town as fast as my short little Norwegian legs would take me, delivering the news to my customers before they went to church.

Once a month, I’d knock on doors after school and collect a buck or so from each customer and put the money in a cigar box in my room at home. Three or four times a year, my paper boss, Reuben Schumacher from Dickinson, N.D., would drive to town and we’d sit down and count out the money I owed him, and I got to keep the rest. If I was lucky, there would be $5 or even $10 in that box for me, for my Sunday morning efforts.

I did that for four or five years, until I was well into high school and I was old enough to get a regular part-time job and turned the newspaper carrier job over to someone younger than me, allowing me to sleep off my occasional Sunday morning beer hangover.

Also, in my last couple of years in high school, I got the job as sports editor of the Hettinger Hi-Lites, the school newspaper. I discovered I was a pretty good writer. In addition to writing stories about all of our school’s sports teams, my first real paying job was ghost-writing Michele Clement’s stories for the paper.

Bob Plum, the newspaper adviser, had kind of a journalism class, and if we worked for the paper, we got some credit. Michele and I grew up together. Our dads were golfing and fishing and hunting buddies (someday I’m going to write some stories about them) and our moms were both pudgy little women named Phyllis. Michele and I were good friends — not girlfriend-boyfriend, but good friends — and she either didn’t like to write or wasn’t good at it. So whenever we got an assignment, she paid me $5 to write it for her. Worked out great, except at the end of the year, she got an A and I got a B.  Both Michele and Bob are dead now, so I can tell that story without recrimination.

I knew in high school I wanted to do journalism as a career. In the high school yearbook, under my photo it says, “his ambition is to be a reporter.” And so I was.

I went away to college and became sports editor of the college paper my freshman year. Then I took a Friday and Saturday night job at The Dickinson Press, answering the phone calls from high school coaches with results of their games and writing one-paragraph blurbs for the paper the next day.

Within a year I was sports editor of the daily paper, and to make a long story short, I spent nine of my first 13 years after high school working for newspapers, sandwiched around a four-year stint as a U.S. Navy photographer. Living my dream.

But I finally figured out there was more money to be made in public relations, so I left the newspapers and had a 30-year career doing various things in that field. But always I had a keen interest in newspapers. I got that, I guess, from my mom and dad, who were newspaper readers as well. In Hettinger, we got the Bismarck Tribune delivered to our door every evening. Harry Samdal brought it from Bismarck on his regular bus route, and one of his boys delivered it, I think. So I’ve probably been reading the Bismarck Tribune for close to 60 years.

It hasn’t always been the best paper around, but it was the only one, so I’ve kept up my subscription since I moved to the Bismarck-Mandan area in 1976. It was still an afternoon paper then, but switched to a morning paper sometime in the early 1980s, I think. I don’t know what I paid for it back then, but what I’m paying for it right now brings me back to the point of this story.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been surprised to learn that most of my friends don’t subscribe to the paper anymore. Their complaints are about quality and price. Mostly quality. And bias. Frankly, it hasn’t been a very good paper lately.

Some of my friends look at the online edition, but most get their national news from the Washington Post or the New York Times online, and their North Dakota news from the website of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, and local news from social media and broadcast outlets and their websites. None of them miss getting the paper, they tell me.

But Lillian and I really like to read a paper with breakfast — we’ve been doing it all these years, and we’re kind of news junkies, and just the idea of starting our day without a newspaper doesn’t work for us. So we’ve bitched and kept on paying the $42.50 a month — $510 a year — for our morning newspaper. It had just about reached my limit of affordability but passed my limit of value when the price was jacked to $612.

But now it isn’t just about the money, which at my new rate is $570 a year. It’s about the way the newspaper operates. Lillian and I have to decide if we want to do business with a company like that, one that employs bait and switch as a standard business practice.

As I said, I’ll feel bad if we have to cancel. I believe in newspapers — and the role they play in society. I don’t want them to go away. As the Washington Post says at the top of its front page every day, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

There are lots of really good people working at newspapers. Dedicated journalists, albeit overworked. And there are a whole bunch of people who get up at 3 or 4 in the morning seven days a week, to deliver papers, rain or shine, for I’m sure slave’s wages, but they need the money. For some, it’s all they have. For others, it’s what they do before they go to their other job at 8 a.m. I have great respect and admiration for them.

But I no longer have any respect for Bismarck Tribune management, or that of their parent company, Lee Enterprises. If newspapers are a dying industry, it’s because of managers like theirs, not because of online competition. We’ll decide what to do in a couple of weeks. Damn, that’s a hard decision.

KELLY HAGEN: That’s So Hagen — ‘I’m Happy, And I Love What I Do’

Oh. Hey.

As first blog entries go, I think we can all agree that this one is already off to a pretty tremendous start. So let’s continue that upward trajectory a little bit longer— and have me introduce myself.

My name is Kelly Hagen. I’m 37 years of age and 5-foot-11, but at my last doctor’s appointment, they accidentally wrote down 6-1, and I didn’t correct them, so officially, yeah, I could probably play in the NBA. I’d be a point guard, sure, and Steph Curry would decimate me every time my team played Golden State. I’m just saying it’s a possibility.

I worked for daily newspapers for a total of six years, five or six years ago. I was a copy editor and page designer for The Forum. After I put in a year’s time at The Forum, I moved back home to Bismarck to work for the Tribune. Again, I was a copy editor/page designer but also a columnist, and I wrote the occasional Life section feature on popular entertainment, and then I was Special Sections editor, which meant I produced special sections to the newspaper and niche publications. That lasted five years, and I bought a house, got a basset hound named Boof, met a girl, married the girl, kept the dog, sold the house, bought another house, and we had a child. Also my dog died, so that was a bummer. But here’s a picture of him, anyway. You will love it.

Boof, on my wedding day, with my wife.
Boof, on my wedding day, with my wife.

I left the newspaper game to work for the North Dakota Public Employees Association (NDPEA, for easy-saying sake), and I want to start this blog with the story of how that happened. And who made it happen. This guy.

His name is Stuart Savelkoul, and he was the executive director of NDPEA . Stuart read my column, religiously. Sounds like a terrible religion to me, but I’m not one to judge. 

Every Friday, at the Tribune, I had my humor column, 600 words or less, of blabbered nonsense about music I like or TV shows I watched, my family, my friends, local entertainment profiles or observations about fast food. I don’t know. It wasn’t incredibly structured.

Stuart and I, at a delegate assembly, not on our wedding day.
Stuart and I, at a delegate assembly, not on our wedding day.

But Stuart felt a sense of kinship with this clown he read in the newspaper each week. He recognized another young adult who saw the world through a different lens, who shared his values, who valued social justice, who was getting married, buying a first house, having children at the same time he was.

He said he was thinking about randomly sending me a Facebook friend request. Which would have been creepy, no doubt.

I had no idea who he was, though. He was executive director for the North Dakota Public Employees Association, which was the statewide union   local of the American Federation of Teachers    that represented all public employees and higher education faculty and staff in North Dakota. He also headed the effort to defeat an initiated measure to slash income and corporate tax rates in the state (I think), which he won. Handily. He was also listed in “40 Under 40” one year in Business Watch, a magazine I briefly helmed. And I put his picture on Page 1 of the newspaper once when I was copy editor, but it didn’t have that much of a memorable effect on me until a few years later when I found it and said, “Hey! Stuart!” and brought it into work to show my boss named Stuart. More on that job later.

Still. Didn’t know him. He could’ve sent me an e-mail or something.

Instead, I sent him one. On a miserable Monday, I was surfing the Job Service site, looking for an escape from a job I didn’t particularly like. You know what that feels like, right?

And I found a listing for a very, very part-time job in communications for the North Dakota Public Employees Association.

So I sent a resume and cover letter as quick as I could to their executive director, thinking only, “I like public employees. I like unions. Stuart is a goofy name. Little Stuart Rifkin probably likes to go shopping with his mother …”

I got a response back in under an hour. That was weird. He either called me or e-mailed me and asked me to call him. I can’t remember. But I know I was on the phone with this guy who was going on and on about what a fan he was and that they’d already selected candidates to interview for this very, very part-time job, and they were scheduled for that evening. But he was such a fan, he’d badgered their president to make room in their schedule that evening to fit me in for an interview. Could I make it on that short of notice?

I did. I walked into the old NDPEA office that evening and noticed that the address was 3333 Whatever Lane (not its real address), but I look for numerical signs from the universe in repeating numbers and preferred numbers. Namely, 3 and 11. So 3333 was a good sign.

I met Stuart for the first time that evening and immediately thought he looked like the Miz from WWE and MTV’s “Real World Challenge” fame. Still do. He looks like the Miz. Awesome?

Miz, on his wedding day? Not pictured, my wife.
Miz, on his wedding day? Not pictured, my wife.

The interview wasn’t nearly as easy as one should be for a very, very part-time job. I had to recite the history of organized labor in America from my own memory. I needed to share my theories on communications and organization. Social structures, public service, why the Minnesota Vikings always choke in the playoffs. It. Was. Rigorous. I really didn’t think I performed all that well, but understand that I didn’t really know I was going to be applying and/or interviewing for this job when I got up that morning.

I remember, at the end of the interview, though, that Stuart said something along the lines of, “No matter what the outcome of this interview, I think I’m going to send Kelly a friend request on Facebook!” And I cracked, “And I will approve it, right after you offer me the job.”

So he did. The next morning. I got the call and the offer of this very, very part-time job. And I put in my two week’s notice at my job at the newspaper, to work very, very part-time for the public workers union, and stay home with my daughter.

Also, he friended me on Facebook. And according to the terms of our negotiations the previous night, I had to approve. Awesome?

Five years later, and I’m still working for the union. Now, it’s full time. Now, I’m director of field communications. And now, the organization is North Dakota United    the product of a merger between NDPEA and the North Dakota Education Association. Our union represents K-12 teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), higher education faculty and staff, public workers, retirees and education students. I’m a unionist. I build communities, I encourage fellowship, collective action and social justice. I tell public employees’ stories. I try to affect change. I like to think I make a difference.

This, again, is Stuart’s fault.

So that brings us to today. I’m happy. I love what I do. I’m seven years married to my beautiful, sweet Annette (her real name), and we have two children — the aforementioned daughter and a son. I’m employed. More importantly, I have a job I care passionately about. I love what I do. I did not plan out this route. I didn’t chart this course. It just happened.

Today is my last day working with Stuart. He is moving to Connecticut to start his new job as staff director for AFT-Connecticut. Stuart hasn’t charted his course, either. He didn’t plan to work for a union. It just happened. He’s going where he’s supposed to be. I have to respect that because that’s how we do things. We go where we are called.

But I want to express my appreciation for Stuart, before he leaves. I thank you for always giving me the chance, to succeed or fail. You let me interview for NDPEA on very short notice, you let me blather on and on about nothing much at all, you let me try new things, write longer than I should, inject questionable references and tones into official communications. You taught me a lot. You talked a whole lot. Sometimes I listened. Sometimes I blacked out in the middle. But I think I grasped just enough to really get to know who you are. You’re a leader. You’re a visionary. You’re empathic, and other words that aren’t words. You are an advocate for the working class. You were my boss, my supervisor, and you will remain my friend. I won’t even unfriend you on Facebook. You’re welcome.

I think we all know what it feels like to lose a co-worker. They’re easy to misplace. Unless you put one of those Tile things on them, and then you can track them with your smart phone. If this blog has commenting capabilities, you should tell me about a co-worker who left you. If it doesn’t, just spend the rest of the day thinking about the story. Really intently. It’ll be good for you. A real character-building device.