If I don’t recognize the caller or it’s from a toll free number. I just don’t have the time or the energy to have to politely explain to some stranger that I’m not interested in the latest Harry & David offering – nothing personal.
I did roll the dice and answer yesterday on an 816 number I didn’t recognize.
Good thing, too, because as it turns out it was from the Kansas City Star.
My Subaru Mastercard was converted into a Rewards Visa a few months back and the bank finally got around to cutting off users of the old card. Which included my $27 and change monthly Star subscription.
A very nice, polite woman at the newspaper called to get my new credit card number and lo and behold, she was an actual a local newspaper employee. Not some farmed out, English as a second language person in the Philippines, like Jack Poessiger gets when he calls in to complain about not getting his newspaper.
Seems the Star has figured out that if they want to retain subscribers intending to cancel their subscriptions, they’d best field somebody with some skin in the local newspaper game.
Then a funny thing happened.
After the woman – with 20 plus years at the Star – explained the problem and got my new credit card number, she said:
“Did you use to work at the newspaper? I thought so!”
She went on to say she missed my column in the FYI Section and that in dealing with a number of newspaper canceling customers, they’d cited my departure as one of the reasons for bailing.
We chit chatted then about other high profile departures in recent years – Jason Whitlock, Joe Posnanski, Dan Margolies – and she lamented the state of affairs at 18th and Grand and said she was thankful to still have her job.
Trust me, she shouldn’t have any worries. I could tell from her bedside manner that she was the perfect person for her position in trying to retain subscribers and collecting past due money (I was a month behind).
So I complimented her and suggested that she probably had an excellent retention rate. Something along the lines of 90-10, maybe?
“I do pretty well,” she said, “but it’s closer to around half.”
That’s a telling number.
Only half the folks who get pissed and call in to cancel, or who don’t like whatever aspect of the Star that’s annoying them, stick with the paper?
And remember, we’re not talking about a bunch of spring chickens here. Far and away most newspaper readers are pushing 50, 60 or 70 and are what you might call core readers.
So losing half of them week in and week out is far from a good thing.
It got me thinking about why the Star’s readership is sinking so rapidly.
You know, beyond the obvious reasons of content cutbacks and price increases – turns out my $27 a month subscription rate is now around $31 – or dated approaches to reporting day late news.
However in the one area the Star could and should have circleed its wagons – local content and columnists – they’ve failed miserably. With the exception to a lesser extent in the sports department. But good as Sam Mellinger is, he and that Vahe dude are no Jason Whitlock or Joe Posnanski.
When I spoke with then Star publisher Mark Zieman as I was leaving, he told me the newspaper had to defend the realm by focusing on the basic news – things like city hall and police. And that the Star could no longer afford much in the way of frills.
That made sense to Zieman and traditional newspaper editor’s dated thinking, but less so probably to readers. But because newspapers still enjoy monopolies in most markets, they thinks they can afford to think and do what they like.
Zieman’s always been old school, even though in comparison to other Star editors he was always considered to be quite young. He’s only 53 today – according to Bloomberg -and is taking down more than $1.5 million a year overseeing the Star and other McClatchy pubs.
I used to joke that Zieman was a 70 year-old trapped in the body of a 40 year-old.
Former editor and publisher Art Brisbane was far more forward thinking in this regard.
Brisbane knew that the Star needed younger voices, women’s voices and colorful columnists like Whitlock, Posnanski and me to keep readers titillated and hold their interest.
Unfortunately on Zieman’s watch the vast majority of the columnists many Star readers had grown accustomed to and appreciated were not retained.
Worse yet, in my case, not even replaced.
The editors easily could have assigned my column to another member of the staff and while I’d maybe like to think, come up a tad short, they would probably have grown into the role. We’re all replaceable, right?
Yet to this day, nothing – unless you count FYI writer Jeneé Osterheldt, who I’ve yet to hear anybody compare me to – they have not. I’d have called Jeneé in and told her the days of writing about her trusty Beetle and grrrlfriends were largely over.
It wasn’t an obvious fit, but there clearly was an obvious need and Jeneé was young enough and out on the town enough to grow into the position. BTW, they finally have redirected her and these days she writes more informational pieces about bars and restaurants in-between commenting on all things racial. Not real exciting, but it’s news people can use.
FYI writer Tim Engle could also have done my job and in part he has – at least in covering local media to a small but appreciated extent. However, Tim’s way too nice a guy to sink his fangs into some of the more prickly subjects that need a fang sinking.
Maybe he and Jeneé could have teamed? Like Brian McTavish and Bob Trussell in the Nighthawks entertainment column.
Unfortunately none of the above went down and what’s really missing in today’s Kansas City Star (in my humble opinion) is colorful content.
Man does not live on meat and potatoes alone.
I think many more former (or soon to be former) readers could probably live with less news content. The Star still puts out more than enough important matter. And what people don’t read about, they likely won’t miss.
However, extracting colorful, high profile columnists and reporters without replacing them is very noticeable.
There’s a clear sense of loss there. Just as there would be if they dared (and they won’t) to take out the black and white comics section or crossword puzzle.
Silly as that may seem, there is a heightened awareness that those sections of the newspaper are indispensable. Those two parts of the print Star will be the last ones standing (along with obits) when and if the final battle is fought.
It was old school newspaper thinking that allowed those changes to go down.
And look where it’s got them – and they still don’t see it.
A woman who goes by “KC” in the customer retention department sees it though.