The assistant managing editor for new products and strategic initiatives at the New York Times made a minor strategic error last week. On Nov. 10, Gerald Marzorati blurted out at a Times panel discussion on digital media that the paper had "north of 800,000 subscribers paying north of $700 a year for home delivery" who "don't seem to know that." During the recession the paper raised the home-delivery rate 5 percent, Marzorati said, but only 0.01 percent canceled. "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they're literally not understanding what they're paying," Marzorati said. "That's the beauty of the credit card." (He meant not the credit card itself but rather its use by the Times for automatic subscription renewals.)
The blogosphere was titillated that a top Times editor would admit that Times readers aren't savvy consumers. Seven hundred dollars, after all, is about what Apple will charge you for a 64-gigabyte iPad on which you can now read the entire Times free of charge provided you have a Wi-Fi connection. For $29 more, you can buy a 32-gigabyte iPad that you can use with either a Wi-Fi or a cellular connection. (The cellular connection will cost you $15 to $25 more per month, depending on which data plan you choose, provided you stay within your monthly data allotment.) The Times app will stop being free early next year, but no way will the subscription price be anywhere near $700. Meanwhile, you can use your iPad to also read the Washington Post app (free now; early next year it will cost about $4 per month or about $1 per month if you're a print subscriber) and the Wall Street Journal app (about $17 per month; free, at least for now, if you're a print subscriber). As noted previously by Slate's Jacob Weisberg, you don't really have to get the iPad apps to read these newspapers online, because the screen is big enough to make their Web sites decently readable.
But lets say you find the newsprint habit hard to break. You still don't have to pay $700 (or $769.60, which is what I paid last April to renew daily and Sunday delivery). The half of the story that Marzorati didn't tell is that it's actually quite easy for an existing Times subscriber to knock that $769.60 bill down to $384.80. Here's what you do, in 12 easy steps:
1) Dial 1-800-698-4637. This will take you to a recorded menu.
2) Press 4. This will take you to a new recorded menu.
3) Press 2. This will take you to a human being.
4) Say, "I'd like to discontinue my subscription."
5) When the human asks why, say, "I can't afford it." If that wounds your pride: "It's too expensive."
6) The human will consult a script and say something very close to these precise words: "I hate to see you go. You've been with us since [date here]." In my case, the human said I'd been a subscriber since 2005. In fact, I've been a Times subscriber since 1976, but I guess Times records don't go back that far.
7) The human will offer you a discount. At the moment, the discount being offered is 50 percent off for 26 weeks. "Everything will remain the same," the human will reassure you, and then again, "I hate to see you go."
8) Say, "What happens after 26 weeks?"
9) The human will answer, "It will default back to regular pricing"—back into the Marzorati Flytrap, faithful reader!—"but I definitely recommend you call at that time to see what we can do." Translation: The Times—assuming you remember to phone before your subscription comes up for autorenewal—will offer you some discount at that time, though not necessarily the same discount you had before, because Times discounting policy may change by then.
10) The human will take a moment to check your account to see when your current subscription is due to autorenew. If it's soon, then you will get a 26-week renewal at the half-off rate.
11) If it isn't soon (as it isn't for me; I renewed for a year in April), then you will receive the half-off discount prorated for the remaining months of your subscription. You're still stuck paying full price for the part of your subscription that predated this phone call. The prorated discount will leave your account with a credit that the Times will apply to next year's renewal. How much of next year's subscription price your credit covers will depend on what discount the Times is offering at renewal time, and how much the Times jacks up the sticker price between now and then. If you forget to phone prior to the autorenewal date, then the credit will be applied to the sticker price.
12) But try to remember to call, because it's conceivable your credit will cover most if not all of next year's renewal.
A few caveats are in order.
First, this is what will work today. As word gets around that the Times habitually charges suckers twice what it charges participants in my recommended 12-step program, the company may have to rethink its variable-pricing strategy.
Second, I don't know for absolute fact that, even today, you will automatically be offered the same half-off rate I was. It's conceivable that if you've been a subscriber for less than five years you won't be offered it, and it's also conceivable that different discounts are being offered to different customers based on some incomprehensible algorithm. But if the human at the other end of the line fails to deliver, simply say: "I happen to know that Timothy Noah of Washington, D.C., recently got 50 percent off, and all he had to do was call. He wrote about it in Slate magazine." Then ask for the human's supervisor.
I feel a little bad sharing this information at a time when newspapers—even the mighty New York Times—are struggling to stay solvent. I am a lifelong Times reader and onetime Times employee. I love the product, as we longtime subscribers tend to.
But it doesn't sit easy with me that the Times' most loyal readers—the people who love the paper so much that they figure they'll pay whatever they have to—end up paying twice what they have to simply because it doesn't occur to them that the good Gray Lady is playing them for suckers. The Times subscription department has its script. Now Times subscribers will have theirs.
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