When legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko encountered a reader who didn’t like his latest column, he would reach into his pocket for a quarter.
“Here’s your money back,” Royko would say.
The cost of buying off angry readers has increased. Could I have $1.59 please, Mr. Royko?
That non-arbitrary number was calculated from a letter I got from the Billings Gazette to inform me of a “change” in my subscription rate. In business letters, “change” is a synonym for “increase,” so I braced myself. Beginning Jan. 16, the letter said, my Gazette subscription would cost $48.50 a month.
Wow. We are paying $40.28 now, so this is a 20 percent increase, if my eighth-grade math skills haven’t failed me. The last time I wrote about this topic, in July 2016, I was paying only $33.60 a month. That’s an increase in less than two years of 44 percent, during a time when inflation has been running less than 2 percent. There goes my tax cut.
So what am I getting for my capital investment? The letter lists four items of new content: do-it-yourself ideas, the Brain Busters puzzle section, a Destinations travel section and “four annual special issues of better, featuring content from such well known magazines as Better Homes and Gardens.”
After I deciphered the syntax of that last entry, I realized there was nothing on that list I wanted. I have never consciously read an issue of “better” or of Better Homes and Gardens. I like Brain Busters but wouldn’t pay for it. Do-it-yourself projects are tough enough without having to read about them. And if I could afford to travel, I wouldn’t be fretting about the cost of my newspaper subscription.
This all comes at a time when I’m already worried about the cost of my news consumption – not that I spend too much but too little. The Sunday TV news shows were talking this week about the importance of vigorous and independent media during the Trump era. Several of the Sabbath Gasbags were saying that people are beginning to realize that even in the internet age, people have to willingly pay for news if they want to keep the media strong and free.
It made me think of how much news I take in and how little I pay for it, at least in cash. There are other costs: the ads cleverly disguised to look like stories, the pop-up ads that block me mid-story, the endless links to “You won’t believe what she looks like today” stories.
I finally felt so guilty about how much time I was spending at the Atlantic website that I bought a subscription to the print magazine. But when the free access to the Washington Post website that came with my Gazette subscription ran out, I didn’t bother to pay the Post to keep it going.
It didn’t help that the Gazette never told me that the deal with the Post had ended. I found out by clicking on Post stories and getting turned down again and again.
The Gazette keeps subscriptions mysterious. I couldn’t find an annual subscription rate by going through the Gazette website, but when I Googled it I got to a page that said the yearly rate was $493.30. The current rate of $40.28 per month adds up to $483.36 a year. So it’s actually cheaper to pay by the month than by the year.
While I was at the Gazette’s website, I signed onto my account to see if I could figure out why the Gazette site keeps asking me a survey question before letting me read a story. But I got a message saying, “This subscription cannot be linked at this time.” Then on the Gazette’s Facebook page I found a message saying no more survey questions.
Note to the Gazette: I always pick the last answer to survey questions. Adjust your results accordingly.
Now, survey or not, the Gazette wants to raise my annual rate by nearly $100, to $582. And then there’s that odd wording at the bottom of the rate increase letter. Covering five lines in what appears to be four-point type, the note says that certain premium editions of the Gazette cost more than the regular rate, including the Thanksgiving issue and up to 20 additional premium editions each year for up to $5 each.
“These charges will be reflected in your account and may accelerate the expiration date of your subscription,” the note said.
When similar wording appeared on my 2016 rate “change” letter, I called the Gazette and asked what it meant. I was assured that I could safely ignore it. The monthly rate was all I would pay.
If I were a real journalist, of the sort that deserves public generosity, I would have called back again this year. But I composed this piece on Christmas Eve, and I didn’t have the heart to call. Nobody should have to deal with a cranky customer like me on Christmas Eve.
Besides, probably none of that 20 percent rate increase is going to the one who would have to take the call.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When I submitted this column to Ed Kemmick so he could apply his editing prowess, he replied that he paid an entirely different, and much lower, rate for the Gazette. What the heck? Did they like his City Lights columns about the sage living in a cave under the Rims all that much? Or is there no standard rate? What are you paying?