StarTribune — Poor Circulation

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I wonder if somebody at the StarTribune newspaper has a grudge against me.  For the umptienth time since last fall the daily carrier skipped my delivery.

I phone it in.  I know the number by heart, it’s been the same since I was a paperboy.  Mostly I connect to the VRU — voice response unit, the automated system — but sometimes it forwards me to a live customer service rep.  The VRU accepts verbal responses to given questions, including phone number and house number.  I don’t trust the voice word recognition system.  It seemed prone to loops of misinterpretation, and don’t dare cough — I’m sorry, would you repeat that?  I prefer to key my information from the keypad — numbers pertaining to explicit answers like 1 – delivery problem, 2 – no paper.  1 – yes I would like them to send a paper.

When the VRU forwards me to a live customer service rep I wonder if the computer has flagged me as a frequent caller or if the VRU itself is just overloaded just then.  The lady whose voice transacts the VRU business sounds a bit disingenuous, and I might say a little poochy and a mote insincere, and after numerous calls and careful study a bit untrustworthy and unempathetic, so it’s okay with me to get forwarded to a real person to whom I verbalize the story.

The person always apologizes as he or she verifies my name and address.  You might think this is a perfect opportunity to rant and rave.  Maybe so.  I’ve been at the receiving end, I used to work at the circulation department of that very same newspaper and heard out the most vociferous complaints you could imagine and entertained the most uncivil language ever spoken.  I listened without interrupting, at least until they repeated themselves twice and it was time to recap the call and bring it to conclusion — redelivery or credit and a note to the DM (district manager) — and a thank you for their business if they didn’t hang up on me first.  Yes, in my time I was a customer care legend and when supervisors were busy, and sometimes when they weren’t, they would transfer hot calls to me and I would endure the customer rage and seek service satisfaction, acknowledge mistakes and propose improvement.  They called me HotKall Kelly.

When I call in these days and get referred to a real person it’s about six after six in the morning in my time zone, usually a Monday, and my mind needs a jump start, no newspaper and who knows where this person on the other end of the phone exists — used to be downtown Minneapolis, could be Iowa or South Dakota, I never ask — whose duty it is to report no paper at my address and to initiate a special delivery, maybe jot a note to the carrier with a cc to the DM and ask if there is anything else he or she could do.

When this issue of missed deliveries first emerged as a pattern last fall and I spoke to a live rep I asked if she noticed anything on the record about disruption on the route.  Was it an open route — no permanent carrier — a sub — substitute carrier — or a down route — something fishy going on like the carrier didn’t show up.  A guy who said he was the DM brought a replacement paper one day when I happened to be on the porch and he apologized for the bad service — I was getting missed days in a row at that time, and when it did come it was tossed casually on the lawn, not placed on the porch — and he explained it was an open route, looking for a regular carrier, and soon everything would be regular again.  That didn’t happen and I kept calling it in.  A special driver would bring a paper to my porch, usually by nine or nine thirty — thump.  And sometimes I would get a callback from someone at the paper asking if the special delivery arrived, and I could say yes, thank you — please fix my route.

When I call in and get routed to a live rep it’s always interesting to get somebody fresh working the phones.  They um a lot and stall while they type their keyboards, and when they get me and see on their screens the delivery history and its commentary I can almost see them look pleadingly at their monitoring supervisors and cringe, getting ready for the barrage of articulated recriminations to come.  And then I ask if it’s still an open route, and the person says no there’s a regular carrier.  I ask if my delivery code on my subscription is still Front Porch (code 9 I think) and the person confirms.  I ask they please remind the carrier to deliver here every day, on the porch, please cc the DM, send me a paper by special driver and thank you very much.  I’m thinking the stats speak for themselves.

Lately when the VRU kicks me to a live rep I don’t even bother feigning a mood of interest in the carrier’s well being.  By now I sense animosity and am willing to accept bygones if only I could count on delivery in some form, but nothing but the plain facts gets discussed with the phone rep.  It’s not his or her fault, it’s the carrier.  I laugh when I remember the olden days when we used to offer the carrier’s phone number so you could call the carrier directly and say, hey, where’s my paper?  Today it’s best to limit the service discussion to business professional terms and not even joke about any incendiary thoughts about the carrier’s motives.  Today revenge is not funny.

If there is comedy in any of this it is in the pattern of defiance and my reaction.  The daily carrier — Monday-Friday — the past eight months, despite my constant reports, keeps skipping my house two or three times a month, usually Mondays.  And when the paper does get delivered it can be found in the front yard or on the sidewalk, never ever on the front porch per the placement code on the customer profile which prints on the route list.

The weekend carrier, by contrast, Saturday and Sunday always puts the paper on the porch at the front door, and has been doing this for several years.  His name is Gonzalez I believe, from writing him tip checks in response to his Christmas fliers, and he drives an old Chevy Blazer with a bad muffler.  He used to have an assistant, a teenage girl, who used to zip out of the car and up the sidewalk to the porch and back like a cat.  He’s been working alone a few years now but every weekend he faithfully stops his Blazer, gets out and treads up steps to my sidewalk and wings the paper onto the porch.  He’s an older guy, maybe older than me.  When I’m up — the weekend delivery deadline is seven — I go out and meet him, say good morning, take the paper in the baggie from his hand, say thank you.

The daily carrier, M-F, barely seems to get out of the car and for all that has a rag arm, can’t seem to get the paper even close to the house.  Every day both carries enfold the paper within a promotional plastic bag, which keeps the paper dry against rain and snow.  Unless it lands in a puddle with the bag wide open in a rainstorm.  (The bags can be recycled at Cub Foods or used to pick up poop if you have a dog.)  I don’t know when the daily carrier swings by but it’s either way early or not at all.  Always too stealthy to wake me up.  I think maybe if I see this person in person I can get inside their head and figure out why they have so little regard for me receiving the paper.

I used to deliver the Minneapolis Star after school when I went to St Simon of Cyrene, sixth, seventh and eighth grade.  Picked my papers up at the shack at 64th and Lyndale.  My big tire bicycle had saddle baskets.  Big thick Wednesdays I might pull a wagon.  Or a sled.  Sometimes I just trudged with sling strap sacks crossed over my shoulders like bandoliers on a pack mule.  Every day.  The evening Star carriers had the extra privilege of delivering the Sunday Tribune.  The daily Tribune was a morning paper, Monday through Saturday delivery — the Tribune carriers got Sundays off.  Most Sundays my dad drove me on the route — neither one of us glad to be up at five a.m.

Rain, snow, thirty below zero Fahrenheit or a hundred degrees above and 80% relative humidity, I delivered the Star door to door nine blocks a day.  About 72 dailies and 80 Sundays.  I’m no martyr either.  I was making good moolah, enough to finance a cool wardrobe and a collection of 60’s rock records.  I read the product every day, free.  The tips were generous, at Christmas phenomenal.  All I had to do was pick up my papers at the shack and deliver them door to door nine blocks on a residential route two blocks from the shack.  Every day.  No matter what.

If I screwed up I could count on getting reamed by my DM, Mr Layton, who cruised his district in a green Ford LTD.  He dressed like Sid Hartman in a suit and tie and a beige trenchcoat.  He had white hair cut in a flatop and wore a gray green fedora so you usually could just see his shaved temples.  You saw him coming and you better be busy, not flirting with the girls who lived along the route.  I liked to be one of his choir boys or stay under his radar, so I did my route right and paid my bill on time every two weeks.

The DM who delivered my paper last November wore a North Face vest, jeans, flannel and a wool hat.  Haven’t seen or heard from him since.  Can’t describe his car.  Mine might be a highly unprofitable route, and I might be the only daily customer (left) on the block (the weekend route has a few subscribers among my neighbors, I can tell by the sounds of Mr Gonzalez’s Blazer.)  It would seem my M-F subscription is a write-off.

Lately when I call in about a missed paper, no matter what assurance I’m given the paper will be redelivered it does not come.  When I worked in circulation we would dispatch redeliveries to people we called Special Drivers who worked territories in their own cars who were equipped with radios to call in and get addresses for missed papers.  Today one would expect the Special Drivers would get their redelivery lists via smart phone.  Lately I’ve been encouraged by the paper to contact it on line at their dot com, so I have learned how to access my account to register my missed paper and request redelivery.  I do it on line more as a redundancy to the phone, and at first superstitiously because the first time I went online to report a missed paper and request redelivery the paper arrived within the hour, wow this must be the way to go — the redelivery is pledged by 11:30 a.m., same day.  Beyond that you can only get credit.  Sure.  So lately I’ve been logging in again later in the day to get the credit.  Tom Petty might say the Special Driver don’t come around here no more.

There’s a local monthly ragsheet comes out every month called Southside Pride.  Put out by a guy named Ed Felien, a lifelong Minneapolis southsider, one time alderman, who refers to himself as an unapologetic Maoist, the paper prints local ads, covers neighborhood events and runs stories critical of government, private business, law enforcement, education and all facets of the establishment, all presented in civil prose and an almost naive format.  Faithfully and without fail the carrier for Southside Pride puts the paper in front of my door on my front porch.  No wasteful plastic bag, just rolled up and bound by a (reusable) rubber band to keep it from blowing away, placed safely under the shelter of my porch against rain and snow.  Faithfully and without fail.

Monday – Friday with the StarTribune it’s always iffy when I get up around six and unlock the front door.  Most days it’s a relief to see an orange or yellow or green baggie out there somewhere.  When there isn’t I am now conditioned not to expect one at all that day.  Lately Mondays.  Someone could argue there’s rarely news on Monday mornings, no business news, usually just fluff from the weekend or things you already know, but I still would rather not miss a day — you never know.  Sometimes a decent essay shows up on the opinion page when least expected.  Or letter from a reader.  Monday is the day LK Hanson’s cartoons lampoon goons and buffoons.

Is this any way to treat a loyal reader?  I keep musing about writing directly to the publisher, Glen Taylor.  It’s an LOL moment too because it reflects the inaccessibility of the StarTribune’s circulation and distribution system by the subscriber.  On its webpage where it says Contact Us leads you to a street address you can mail them a letter and both a local and a long-distance toll free phone number — but no email.  No comments box.  No digital way to write a delivery complaint in your own words.  The home page may offer options to make editorial comments and newsroom feedback but for delivery issues everything is fundamentally obscure to access, and once clicked it defaults to Damaged Paper as the first option, as if offering the carrier an alibi will encourage the customer to think twice before calling the carrier a deadbeat.

When I used to collect from customers face to face and door to door every two weeks it cost $2.40 for seven day delivery for two weeks.  Today two weeks costs $17.62.  And now it’s prepaid, in 13 week increments.  We used to collect for delivery in arrears.  Prepaids were rare luxuries, though prepaids didn’t tip.

Everybody knows there are cheaper and more immediate and often customized sources to get news, and if the StarTribune collects news at all it is self-aware.  With a measure of conceit and a concession to old fashioned readers like me they put out an e-edition that mimics the hard copy I get at home, page for page.  Recent subscription policy says when we put the delivery on hold when we are away — a vacation stop — charges to the account continue, and in lieu of the paper paper they allow a daily and weekend view of the e-edition we can log into on wi-fi.  Otherwise a subscription to the e-edition alone is same as the print edition.  I pony up because the StarTribune’s version of the news is worthy.

My son on the other hand generally disagrees.  He says the StarTribune publishes dogwhistle stories, which means to him they deliberately hook a slant into their reporting which is meant to stir controversy from either side and bait debate.  So, I say, so what?  And nonetheless he keeps reading it in digital format, making him I guess an informed expert in what he’s saying.

I respect the reporters and writers and the integrity of the editorial staff.  I appreciate the content of stories appropriated from big sources such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Economist.  They have not one but two high-end music critics, one for older fans and one for younger.  They got a smart sports department.  The arts and letters coverage aims at insight.  I think they check the facts, not check the facts at the door.

The word Star means point of light or top performer.  The word Tribune comes from a concept of being a representative of the populace, an advocate for the people.  Aptly named, the StarTribune excels (shines) at standing up for its community.  Some call it a liberal newspaper.  My son says it promotes dogwhistle content.  The way I see it, any newspaper reporting facts that authorities try to hide is a liberal press, and I agree with HL Mencken journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  When everyone approves of every story then it’s a sign it isn’t being honest.

The owner and publisher, Glen Taylor, a long established local tycoon in the printing business and latter day owner of the NBA Timberwolves and defending WNBA champion Lynx, is said to be a Republican, but there is no discernible political party bias in the paper’s news, features or editorials, just an overt reaction to liberal bias by conservative compensation where due, a pledge to keep the debate fair.  And civil.  To think Taylor isn’t looking head-on down the road of print journalism and seeing the niche limitations fading away like AM radio sells his business acumen short.  The StarTribune newspaper of ink and paper will likely evolve itself out of existence, starting apparently with a service shortage on the east side of south Minneapolis.

The paper gave up its downtown real estate and storied presence in the physical corpus of the city and became another virtual concept with a logo and brand recognition renting office space in a skyscraper.  The times they are a changing, I get that, especially here in the old home town.  Since the Cowles family heirs cashed out their shares in Cowles Media there have been a bunch of guardian publishers like McClatchy who took the rap when the StarTribune kept downsizing to keep up with increasing costs and decreasing revenues in the newspaper business, stripping itself down, turning itself into the Strib.  Alas somebody had to take the fall of unpopularity without fouling against union contracts in place and stiffing readers and writers.  The ethical survival of the paper into the 21st century must have taken a strong measure of dedication to preserve its relevance in the age of video.  Enter now the digital age of devices, whereas yours truly prefers information on printed pages of paper I recycle.  Somebody still goes to the computerized trouble to budget and format over half a million daily copies.  One anticipates the Star Tribune isn’t going to fold any time soon.

I would prefer not to be driven away from subscribing.  I get up before dawn, even in June, the longest days, and I look forward to jump starting my mind reading the morning paper.  I worked my whole adult life after 26 to become a morning person just to retire and find myself slept enough at the first glimmer of civil twilight, the first birdsongs, to want to get up, brew coffee (if the auto timer hasn’t activated yet) and go to the front door, open it to the porch and look for the paper, read what’s going on.

It makes me sad after all the trouble the production staff went to produce and distribute a first rate, sophisticated daily metropolitan newspaper, my copy gets missed and nobody cares, nobody’s looking out for me, it’s just too bad.  They’re sorry.  They can credit me a little over a dollar per missed daily, extending the prepaid subscription another daily.  My ultimate recourse, of course, is to quit the paper.  Obviously nobody’s bonus is tied to keeping my subscription.

I might write a letter to Glen Taylor though.  It’s an old tactic I’ve seen before, hot calls demanding to speak to the publisher when it used to be Roger Parkinson.  Saw the same tactic when I worked for a bank and the outraged customers demanded to talk to the president, Jim Campbell.  Or if they merely wrote a letter to said big boss, it would get handed off to a vice president who might hand it off to me to solve and present to another vice president to manage and send the matter back to somebody to compose a letter under the boss’s name addressed to the complainant, which might be as much as would happen over the telephone except any real involvement with the big boss — unless the complainant used threats of bodily harm, and then it was time to invoke security procedures.  Today even the tiniest innuendo could evoke a visit from the FBI.

Instead I’ll just post this essay and hope no one retaliates by cutting off my circulation.

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BK