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.

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