Vacation-stops policy reflects new direction

I spoke this morning to the Oak Ridge Breakfast Rotary Club. It was a great group, very supportive of the News Sentinel and, especially, of Frank Munger, who covers the Oak Ridge scientific complex for us.
munger_ornl_skybox_t120.jpgOne concern was raised, however, and it is one I’ve been hearing a lot about. In recent weeks, the News Sentinel has stopped giving customers credit for “vacation stops.” Subscribers can have the newspapers delivered when they return from vacation, or they can donate them to schools. But their bills remain the same. As one email-writer put it: “I understand newspapers are hurting due to the Internet, but that is crazy.”
I’m sympathetic to the readers’ complaints. Newspapers — the only product that is still home-delivered — have for decades adjusted bills whenever customers called in and ordered delivery stopped while they went on vacation. Readers were paying for each paper that was delivered to their homes, just as, in the past, they paid for every bottle of milk that was brought. Now, however, we were asking that they pay, in effect, for newspaper service, just as they pay for cable TV service. It’s a radical adjustment.
We think the new model is fair because the printed edition no longer is the only way that newspaper content is delivered. Nowadays, the News Sentinel is available on websites, smartphones and tablets, giving readers many options to keep up with the news while at home or away. The problem is that access to those services is free to everyone, not just subscribers. So some subscribers feel it’s unfair to pay for newspaper service while on vacation, even if they do have access to the News Sentinel’s other products.
As I’ve mentioned before, sometime next year the News Sentinel will join the many newspapers selling subscriptions that bundle together print delivery and full access to digital products. Then it may not seem so “crazy” that the membership fee continues even when the reader is out of town.
In any event, as the newspaper relies more on subscription fees and less on advertising, we have to make sure we’re doing the best journalism we can, so that readers will find the work of Frank Munger and the rest of our newsroom is worth the price.