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.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Why I Won’t Cancel My Newspaper Next Time I’m All Riled Up, Either

I’ve been thinking lately about what I really want for Christmas … especially this year, when “peace on earth, good will to all” seems in such short supply.

My family tells me I’m tough to shop for. I like what I have; I certainly don’t need more. So in the interest of making life easy for anyone who’s thinking of sending me presents, I’ve pondered long. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Please subscribe — or resubscribe — to your local daily newspaper.

Not for me, exactly, nor precisely for yourself.

Do it for all of us. Do it for the America we want to live in.

Now, maybe this seems a little out of character for someone who writes for The Extra and the blog unheralded.fish — two platforms that we love to share with you absolutely free. I believe we offer invaluable service, and I’d be most obliged if you keep on reading! But as a veteran of the traditional newspaper business and a fervent believer in an informed society, I truly hope you’ll also take me up on this helpful hint. It’s absolutely the best idea you’ll see this holiday season.

Why would I be peddling daily newspapers, pray tell? One big, fat, undeniable reason: Without the vigilance of observant professional journalists — day in, day out, in moments that are overstuffed with “news” and at others when nothing much happens — our nation will be lost.

If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard bits of the raging debate over “fake news” delivered on the Web. Some astute observers blame (or credit) the flurry of frankly faux headlines with tipping the outcome of the election. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the parent of the juggernaut called Facebook, concedes false content is stickier and more viral than more sober and accurate stories.

On the Saturday after the election, Zuck sought to minimize his brainchild’s impact on the tone and temper of America 2016. While pledging to sort the grains of truth from the chaff, he contended that “more than 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic.” As one of the zillions addicted to his social medium, I beg to differ. But why quibble? His Facebook statement (you can read it here) means that, now, 100 percent of users acknowledge it’s bad policy to swallow everything you read online.

Of course, it’s prudent to take each word you read or hear — online, on air and on paper -— with a grain of sodium chloride. Or perhaps we all need an even larger dose, a payload of salt the size of the dump trucks that de-ice our winter highways.

But any reasonable observer must understand that differing degrees of trustworthiness are native to the news we absorb in its infinite forms. By any measure, the most reliable — the sanest — the hands-down likeliest to build its stories from actual facts, tested and found true by concrete, real-world definitions — is still the daily newspaper.

Staffed by a dedicated though dramatically shrunken corps of committed and hard-working journalists, newspapers are perhaps the last medium that still strives every day to throw a bright light on the entire truth. They still aspire to hold the front line in separating propaganda from facts embedded in promotional fluff. They work weird hours for crappy pay for a motive that’s fallen out of favor in an era of clickbait and cut-throat ratings: They toil to keep citizens — us! — in touch with what our governments, corporations and individual citizens are really up to.

Oh, yes, I recognize their stumbles. I’m at least as fierce a critic of newspaper missteps as you, and possibly far tougher. That’s because I belonged to the newsroom tribe myself for the first decade of my career. I may see their shortcomings more sharply and judge them much more harshly than a “civilian” might … at least, a civilian who reaches beyond the facile cheap shots that mobs of partisans lob around today.

But my quibbles, large and small, originate from a place of respect and trust. There is no one on Earth in whom I have more confidence, in the long run, than the smart, seasoned, tough-minded journalists who still manage — against all probability — to hang on in embattled newsrooms. No one is more aware than they of the multitude of ways that newsmakers encroach on their opportunities to observe firsthand and draw neutral, objectively honest conclusions. No one tries harder to discern and report the truth.

And no one is more aware of being an endangered species. The profession of journalism is desperately wracked by layoffs within and scorn outside traditional news organizations. Just ask them: They’ve watched dozens, hundreds, thousands of superb, wise reporters flung off the merry-go-round as the news business spins wildly in ever-more-erratic circles, attempting to survive in a digital universe where the odds are frankly stacked against it.

Sure, the newspaper can drive you nuts sometimes. Sometimes I joke that I read my morning paper just to make sure my blood pressure hasn’t sunk too low overnight. That doggoned daily edition gets me going faster than the very first drops of plasma that gurgle out of the coffeemaker. Just ask my husband! Sometimes it makes me crazy.

But that’s what good newspapers, and good journalists, are supposed to do: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The wise and generous editor who made me who I am today used to say that we newshounds needed to celebrate, rather than regret, the ruckus our readers occasionally kicked up in our faces: “That means they’re reading us.”

Journalists don’t always get it right, or get the whole panoramic story. But I’d trust those professional writers and editors, with their venerable, time-tested habits of questioning and reflecting and corroborating what they’ve been told, a thousand times sooner than the idle chatter and self-serving half-truths (quarter-truths? 1 percent truths?) on social media.

I’m sad to report that most of my peers (the generation that still reads ink on paper) no longer subscribe to our local daily newspaper. They’ve canceled their subscriptions for one very good reason or another — maybe a columnist they abhor, maybe the abortive SheSays, maybe an editorial endorsement or a sports match that was overlooked or a story they deemed slanted.

Or maybe they just wanted to save $59 per quarter. They figure they can read much of it for free online. Or perhaps they think that if something important happens, they’ll hear about it … somehow. Perhaps on Facebook.

Meanwhile, they’re starving the one and only profession whose highest goal is the telling of the truth. Today, instead, the big bucks go to wildly profitable enterprises that gather and profit from the very same stories that originate among the rare and priceless profession whom they no longer support.

When the newspapers vanish, so will go the lifeblood of a well-informed and responsible citizenry. Knowledge, rather than the specious ignorance spawned by “news” that is solely propaganda, is only nutrition that can keep our America healthy.

Should you do this as a gift for me? I was kidding about that. Sort of. I want you to subscribe to your local daily newspaper for yourself. We’ll all be better off in the long run.


Americans have lost confidence in just about everything

The USA, Americans say, basically sucks right now.

The latest Gallup Poll says Americans over the past two years have lost confidence in, well — name it: Congress (8 percent); the presidency (33 percent); Supreme Court (32 percent); big friggin banks (“institutions” that made $4 billion charging customers for money transactions … 28 percent, down from 40 percent); 21 percent for Big Frickin’ Business; and organized religion (42 percent). The reasons for the sour and outlook are many. Take your pick: Wars, stagnant wages, a sluggish economy, the polarization and gridlock by the clowns in Washington, etc. Only the military and small business managed to climb in the confidence rankings. Hmmmmm.


Pope Francis calls for a revolution for the sake of climate and each other

Daniel Burke, CNN religious reporter, analyzes Thursday’s “Laudato si,” Pope Francis’ “encyclical” message to 1 billion Catholics.

“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal.”

The environment is intimately connected to our care for each other, Francis says, and we are failing miserably at both. The pope spared few of the world’s institutions and denounced big businesses, energy companies, shortsighted politicians, scurrilous scientists, laissez faire economists, callous Christians and myopic media professionals. Hmmmmm.


‘Branding’ and other corporate b.s. is ruining journalism

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post responds to a journalism student after she asked him how he built his personal brand over the years. Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist, didn’t mince words. Among them: “The media is in a frantic, undignified campaign to economize while at the same time attracting more “eyeballs.” It’s a dangerous situation: Newspapers that used to allocate their resources to deposing dictators and ferreting out corruption are now using them to publish snapshots of their readers’ cats.” By the way, Americans have only 24 percent confidence in newspapers these days, down from 30 percent. Hmmmm.


Taxpayers pay through the nose to rebuild houses on the ocean’s edge — again and again and again

New England Center for Investigative Reporting uncovers a story that might echo in the Red River Valley. It’s a top shelf head scratcher.  According to NECIR, “A vacation home damaged at least 10 times by Atlantic storms will be elevated with money from a federal grant for the second time in a dozen years — this time for $180,000,” records show. “The home has emerged as a symbol of controversial federal policies that financially support the rebuilding of homes on the sea’s edge with tax dollars, no matter how vulnerable they are to climate change’s rising seas and more severe storms. The grant adds to the close to $1 million the home has received for flood damage in the past four decades through insurance payouts and grants, funded in part with taxpayer dollars.” Hmmmmm.