Are your doors open?

Customer service comes in many forms — in person, in print and online.


Some business problems apply to all models.

Have you ever checked into a hotel and discovered that the key card you’ve been given doesn’t work? Annoying, eh? You have to schlep back down to the front desk, dragging your bag behind you. …

Imagine you own a hotel called NEWS.  Every room has a bed, a table, a chair and a bath (collectively, the news report), but the rooms differ in design and style, because, you’ve learned, some guests prefer one style, some, another.

In our hotel of news, some readers have their report delivered to their home on paper, some read it on their phone, others on their tablet or their laptop. Some prefer podcasts, others want newsletters sent by email.

Every one of those “rooms” has a door.  How well are those doors working?

I stopped at the local weekly’s office last Friday and bought a copy, thinking I’d find a house ad inside or a postcard insert that I could use to start a print subscription. No form. Nor could the folks in the office start a subscription for me. I’d have to call the chain’s regional headquarters, I was apologetically told, or go online.

I subscribe to the digital version of an out-of-state daily. When I try to log in using my cell phone or my tablet, the font size of the log-in box is too small to read.

How common are problems like these? How many doors to the rooms we are so feverishly trying to design are hard to open? One wonders.

Want to test your doors?

  1. List the ways new readers become subscribers (i.e., your doors).
  2. Design a one-page form to capture all of the problems that new subscribers might encounter (plus “other,” for problems you can’t foresee).
  3. Ask friends or family members who aren’t subscribers to help with a two-week test. Assign each a particular “door,” give them the form and ask them to subscribe and use their subscription for at least two weeks (you can reimburse them and cancel their subscriptions when the test is over).
  4. Collect the forms. Evaluate the results. Prioritize the problems.
  5. Fix what’s wrong. (If you don’t know how and can’t afford to hire a vendor, see WHAT IF below.)
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 until your doors all open on command.

WHAT IF you don’t know how to fix a door or can’t afford to hire a vendor to fix it for you?

Your humble blogger would like to suggest a novel approach to that problem. In their weakened state, could local papers begin to help one another? We’ll always want to compete on the news report, of course (may the best news report win!). But couldn’t we help solve common business problems, share solutions? Chances are, whatever “door” issues you have are shared by others in your state. Why not use your state press association to brainstorm and share solutions?

Just a thought. Because we want all our NEWS hotels to stay open.

For Jon

One editor’s notes, shared

Tonight I am violating two rules. I’ve written and will post these words after imbibing two small glasses of red wine (that’s the no-alcohol rule I’m breaking), and I’m going to get a bit personal (that’s the let’s-keep-it-professional rule being ripped asunder).

Today, this night, December 2, 2016, my husband, Jonathan Kellogg, would have turned 70. It was not to be. He died without warning on August 17, 2015.

Last night and again tonight, for comfort, I read some of the bits and pieces of his life’s work, papers gleaned from our attic archives last winter. They are relevant to this blog, these bits and pieces. He didn’t originate all of them; he kept them to remind himself of why he did what he did, of the standards he worked so hard to sustain during his lifetime as an Associated Press reporter, editor and bureau chief, and as a newspaper managing editor and executive editor.

The rest of this post is composed of some of those bits and pieces.

First, one that he wrote:

“What will keep newspapers successful … is the ability to find and deliver information that readers truly need in a format that is accessible and clear. … Failing newspapers will content themselves with simply reporting events. The successful newspaper will be loaded with stories that surprise readers with information and insight. It will satisfy readers’ curiosity about themselves and their world. It will be a newspaper that readers can’t afford to miss.

And now, other bits that he kept, most of uncertain origin:

People who own stocks, read stock pages. People who live in a community, own stock in the community. They read the newspaper to determine how their stock is doing. The function of the newspaper is to get as much of that day’s news as possible into the paper.

Editors can only respond. They cannot command a story.

People are a long-term investment. Treat them that way. Evaluate the work, not the worker. Show the worker how his habits and attitudes relate to the work.

On interviewing:

  • Do your homework — know the right questions.
  • Listen — get the answers right.

On writing: Two functions — entertain and inform. Writing that fails either test loses readers or wastes their time.

Love the reader. Write stories that mean something to the reader.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who wrote “Democracy in America,” wrote of newspapers: To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization.”

Indianapolis is the same distance from Washington, D.C., as Chernobyl is from Moscow. Yet the people of the Soviet Union knew nothing and did not even begin to get information until the cloud drifted over a foreign country. Can you imagine the Canadians telling us about a nuclear power accident in Indianapolis?

Secrecy is the hallmark of totalitarian government. The Soviets allow secret arrest, secret trial and secret imprisonment. Any, I repeat, any, movement in that direction strikes at the very foundation of a free society.

Who has the power in society?
The municipality collects taxes.
The sheriff can jail you.
The state can execute you.
The president can send you to war.

The press can tell you the truth about these powers.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment guarantees the right to publish. It does not include the right to be free from criticism or from paying a price of irresponsibility.

Article 22 of the N.H. Constitution: “Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.”

Inviolable: to secure from violation; secure from assault or trespass.

Article 15 of the N.H. Constitution (in part): “No subject shall be arrested, imprisoned, despoiled, or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of the protection of the law, exiled or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.”

The key phrase is “judgment of his peers.” Arrests must be made public, detention that could lead to any court action or deprivation must be made public. It’s not the right of the press, but the right of the public. It is the media that preserves this right by informing the public of decisions of government and actions of police.

Frank Batten, chairman of the board of Associated Press directors and president of Landmark Communications, explaining the AP policy on member assessments, Feb. 9, 1984:

“The AP has been — and remains — the backbone of the information system of this nation and a large part of the world. The AP has a tradition of honesty and objectivity and of dedication to member service. In a world of glitter, the AP keeps its eye on substance, reliability and dependability. It evokes loyalty and devotion from hundreds of journalists and technicians we have never met.

“Some go in harm’s way. Some work in cramped and disagreeable places. All of them keep the watch — keep it so faithfully and surely that we might tend to forget their contribution to our newspapers and to the concept of a free press and an informed public

“I say these few things about the AP because without them the rest of the message this morning is hollow, a complex recitation about money that might seem remote from your real interests. I have said them so that we might all remember why we are here.”

And lastly, because, in addition to being a very serious newsman, my husband loved what he did, loved life and loved to laugh, here’s one more bit, Jack Germond’s story on why things are not always as they appear:

An accountant woke up early one morning dreaming of a huge number five. He was startled because he was a man who liked the ponies and often was looking for signs after which to fashion bets.

He looked at the clock; it said 5:55.
As he left the house, he checked the temperature; it was 55 degrees.
When he got in his car, the odometer read 55,555.
He drove to an auditing assignment at 555 Park Avenue.
The balance sheet he did for his client came out solid fives across the bottom.

He could stand it no longer. He grabbed a cab and said, “Take me to Belmont!” He went to the $50 window and bought five win tickets on the number five horse in the fifth race.

 The horse came in fifth.

The benefit of one-to-many dialogue

The traditional daily shares its soapbox with readers.

Have you ever sat down, in a fit of opinionated passion, to pen an epistle to the editor of the local daily?

I have — when I was upset about an event I had witnessed, when I wanted to thank people for help I had received, and when the newspaper’s editorial was too slanted to be tolerated.

(Tiny confession: I’ve sent more than one letter for the last reason.)

Traditional dailies reserve two pages in each edition, the editorial page and the op ed page, for venturing into opinion. It’s where readers turn to find out who’s riled up at whom.

The pages typically contain the publisher’s opinion (the editorial of the day), an editorial cartoon, letters to the editor and pieces by nationally syndicated columnists.

It’s usually an interesting read. Some dailies try to make it even more so. When I was the wire editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor many moons ago, my job included laying out the opinion and op ed pages. The Monitor had recruited a stable of local experts in various fields, and I managed their scheduled submissions. It was fascinating work. They were the content experts of the day, blogging, as it were, through the paper. But I digress.

A block of space on the opinion pages is reserved for letters to the editor. It’s foolhardy to engage in a writing war with a publisher who buys ink by the barrel, but many march in with the courage of conviction.

It does take courage, for most newspapers require your signature and will publish your name with your letter. That tends to raise the level of discourse.

(If you don’t believe me, just compare the letters in the local daily print edition to the anonymous comments posted in an online edition.)

It’s a community benefit, this public opportunity for a one-to-many expression of ideas and opinion. It’s also an individual benefit for any reader who, in essence, is allowed to borrow the publisher’s press for a day.

The benefit of daily contact

When you buy a daily subscription, customer service extends to your door.

In the wee, dark hours of the morning they work — usually alone, often unseen, often unheard.

The traditional daily is delivered by newspaper carriers.

Sometimes, they encounter peril on their route and, sometimes, they do more than just deliver the news. A Poynter article by Andrew Beaujon, “The year in newspaper carriers,” offers an entertaining and enlightening sample of delivery stories from 2014. Here’s one:

“September: Don Hardin, 80, a carrier for the Valley News Dispatch, alerted a family that ‘their SUV was burning furiously and threatening their house.’ ‘People need to get their paper delivered,’ rescuee Angela Worthing told Chuck Biedka. ‘Reading it online wouldn’t have saved us.’ (Valley News Dispatch/TribLive)”

The carriers’ role was brought to mind by a full-page ad I unearthed from our attic archives the other day.

“There are nearly 2,000 boys and girls, men and women, who deliver the Portland Press Herald, Evening Express and Maine Sunday Telegram,” the ad says.

Designed to commemorate International Carrier Day, the ad includes a quote from each newsroom executive. My husband’s says this:

“I got my paper route when I was 11 and kept it for three years. It earned me my first bank account, paid for my first new bicycle and paid for the first real Christmas present I gave to my mother.

“Paper routes teach discipline, responsibility, teamwork and entrepreneurship. It’s a great way to instill important values in young people and let them gather the rewards of their own labor at the same time.” —Jon Kellogg, Managing Editor—Reporting

Carrier jobs provide a part-time gig for youngsters, retirees and anyone in between. They are the contact between the newspaper and its customers each day. And, as Beaujon says, they are “America’s least-acknowledged first responders.”

Amazon can have its drones. We’ve got carriers.

The benefit of community calendars

The local daily spreads the news for nonprofits.

Recently, I asked some friends to imagine life without the local daily.

One of them immediately mentioned a benefit I’d forgotten. “What would we do without calendar listings?” she exclaimed. “How would we get the word out?”

If you have a community like ours, it’s full of nonprofit organizations that can’t afford to advertise. Most of them have websites; some actually post news about upcoming events. Even so, their updates are likely to only reach the site’s existing audience.

Enter the local newspaper and its daily or weekly lists of upcoming events. Arts calendars, sports calendars, church calendars — whatever the type of event — the paper gives nonprofits a free way to tell everyone in the community what’s happening. It seems like a small thing, until you imagine life in your community without it.

The benefit of proximity

The local daily is just that, a local business operating, very visibly, downtown.

The offices of a traditional daily are located within the subscription area, usually in the most populated community.

Centrally located, a physical presence that draws the eye and the imagination, a daily’s headquarters help establish its role as the public’s watchdog, a place that’s always humming with information and activity.

For advertisers, subscribers and community leaders, the ability to easily meet with the newspaper’s staff encourages personal interaction. The benefits of face-to-face communication are many, from the role that body language plays in clarifying meaning, to the ease of side-by-side learning, to the satisfaction felt by an angry customer given the chance to vent in the presence of a newspaper manager.

Have a problem with a story? Need help designing an ad? Want to buy a print of that terrific photo of your nephew? The people who can help are within your reach, literally.

Unhappily, smaller profits have been driving many newspapers to seek cheaper digs.

The Press Hotel
The Press Hotel of Portland, Maine
(click on photo to visit website)

The headquarters of The Portland Newspapers, for example, where my husband and I used to work, has been sold and turned into The Press Hotel. It’s a lovely place to stay when visiting the city, and the paper’s current headquarters is still within the circulation area*, but — I’m sighing here — it’s more fun to have the newspaper downtown.

In its State of the News Media 2013 report, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that, “In a symbolic indicator of decline, newspapers are abandoning the grand headquarters buildings that used to help anchor downtowns in favor of smaller, less expensive offices.”

How the mighty have fallen. And how wonderful it would be if a new business model for newspapers could resurrect the physical symbols of their importance, in downtowns across the country.

* Maine Today Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, has maintained an office for reporters and editors in downtown Portland, but that too will soon be gone. Click here to read more.

Exploiting viral inventory

When your paper’s moment occurs, will your digital ads be ready?

I’ve been noodling about ad-space inventory lately.

I know.  It sounds boring. Stick with me, though. You might find yourself fascinated.  We’re going to look at the topic from two perspectives.

At a traditional daily, the number of times a given ad is viewed is dictated by the press run. The press run (the count of papers printed) is typically the count of subscribers, plus a cushion for single-copy sales.

First perspective, the advertiser:  Presume you’ve placed a display ad in the Thursday edition of a traditional daily to advertise a weekend sale at your store. The Thursday press run is 40,000 copies, so, in effect, you’ve bought 40,000 ad views.

The paper is delivered to your 40,000 potential customers on Thursday morning; you’re all set for your sale.

Now, presume there is no print daily in your community, so you’ve placed your campaign with the local online newspaper. You’ve asked that your ad be delivered from midnight Wednesday through midnight Thursday to 40,000 unique viewers. You presume that most of the newspaper’s online viewers are local, because the website’s content is about local events and issues (and besides, the paper told you so).

Here’s the thing. An online paper doesn’t have a press run. Instead, the count of papers printed (as it were) is dynamically dictated by demand, and that can vary — wildly — from day to day.

If Thursday’s edition is a dog and traffic is down, your 40,000 ad views won’t be delivered.

If Thursday’s edition goes viral, your 40,000 ad views may go out in an hour. And then it gets interesting.

If your campaign has been properly set up, it will be stopped by the ad-serving software when it’s dished up your creative 40,000 times.  (Of course, since the edition has attracted attention from around the world, your ad has been seen by many who don’t live anywhere near your store.)

What if you put your store’s url in the ad? And what if the campaign wasn’t set up properly and your ad goes out millions of times? Ooh, I hope your online retail operation is ready for uber demand. You could be sold out before the weekend arrives.

Let’s not go there. Let’s presume your campaign was set up properly and ends as it should. In fact, let’s presume the paper’s ad-serving software has to max out every campaign in its queue that’s scheduled to go.  Then … what?

It’s time to switch perspectives, to that of the paper’s view. An online edition that’s gone viral is going out to new readers.  The ad server has to send something out. Won’t it be a shame if the only creatives it has to deliver are stale house ads? What could/should an online newspaper do to be sure that, in the event of a viral outbreak, all that excess ad-space inventory is exploited in the most advantageous way?  Hmmm.