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Are newspapers this hard up?

By Michael R. Shannon
web posted October 25, 2010

The most remarkable thing happened last week. The Wall Street Journal tried to pick my pocket. I assumed when Titans of Wall Street selected victims they focused on businesses that actually had money, but I suppose the Great Recession has lowered everyone's sights.

This attempted theft never would have happened if I had not been forced to say goodbye to The Washington Times.

I had remained a faithful subscriber through accusations of Moonieism, missed papers and mass marriages. But when management more than doubled the subscription rate — after dropping local coverage, dropping the Saturday paper, dropping the Sunday paper and firing Dan Daly and the sports staff — it was time to move on to less troubled journalism.

But losing the Times left me a newspaper short. Where I live in Virginia the News & Messenger takes care of local information, but I also require a conservative balance for The Washington Post. And wouldn't you know it, the Journals' web page had an offer for one year of the print and online edition at $2.69/week, with two additional weeks free.

Cheerful consumer that I am, I completed the form, hit the finalize button and noticed something strange. The final price was $140.00. I'm no math wizard — in fact, I'm not even a math sorcerer's apprentice — but I knew that $2.69 times 52 is $139.88, not $140.00.

I called customer service to explain the problem thinking it was probably just an innocent coding error, someone used FORTRAN instead of FIVETRAN — and learned The Wall Street Journal believes the best way to begin a relationship with a new customer is to cheat them.

The "customer service" rep told me they always "round up" the total charge. As far as I'm concerned, once is an overcharge but when overcharging is company policy, it becomes stealing.

I protested the web site said nothing about "rounding up" and I wanted my $0.12 returned. "Customer service" was amazed. "It's only $0.12!" he protested. "Besides you get two weeks free." A feeble justification, since "free" means you don't have to pay.

Let's pause and add some perspective. When eating at Dak's restaurant, I have a meal at a locally–owned establishment that does not have access to the technology infrastructure enjoyed by Dow Jones, yet they have no problem dealing with charges that include fractions of a dollar.

The News & Messenger has no problem with fractions and neither does the Post. What's more, the Journal publishes stock quotes to the exact decimal, so someone in the building is familiar with the concept of fractions.

They just don't extend the privilege to the customer.

So what do we have here? At the least it's false advertising or maybe bait–and–switch. At the worst Journal management is committing fraud.

I could have joined the fight against breast cancer with that money, yet when I told my wife, Janet, she kept repeating, "It's only $ 0.12." And son, Karl, dismissed my lonely fight for principle with, "Gee, dad, you can make that up from the "leave–a–penny–take–a–penny" at 7/Eleven."

I suppose this is why the Journal's corporate policy makers believe they can cheat the customer; individually the amount is very small, but after 100,000 or so subscribers we're talking real money.

Regular readers know I'm a big supporter of free enterprise, business and the market. But I'm not a supporter of business venality.

Corporations spend a fortune each year on research and focus groups to test potential customer reactions to ephemera like logo colors, but don't give a second thought to company policies that outrage people.

I'd pay money to be in the focus group where bean counters asked what consumers thought about "rounding up;" or applying credit card payments to the balance with the lowest interest rate instead of the highest; or sitting on a runway for eight hours bathed in eau de Port–A–Let.

The worst part is that asinine corporate behavior like this makes the hearts of the egregious Sen. Chuck Schumer (D–Publicity), Rep. Henry Waxman (D–Ignorance) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D–Running Scared) go pitter pat. It gives them another excuse to hold hearings and pile more laws and regulation on businesses that don't use their size to cheat the customer. Stupid, dishonest, short–sighted corporate policies like the Journal's encourage more federal interference and distortion in the market.

At least when the cell phone company tries to slip a dubious charge by you it has the decency to bury it deep in the bill under a confusing heading like "Customer Income Recapture." The Wall Street Journal rubs it in your face and dares you to do something about it.

So I did. ESR

Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He can be reached at michael-shannon@comcast.net.

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