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Oct. 28, 2021, 2:38 p.m.

Cancel culture: Why do people cancel news subscriptions? We asked, they answered.

We found that the primary stated reason was money, followed by political or ideological concerns.

What was the last news subscription you canceled, and why?

Media Twitter may be full of people threatening to cancel their (for instance) New York Times subscriptions over some recent op-ed, but we wondered how many people actually went ahead with their threats to cancel news subscriptions.

Public data on cancellations is sparse. It’s not something that news organizations like sharing. It can also be surprisingly annoying to cancel news subscriptions online, often requiring an actual call to customer service. (It doesn’t have to be this way!)

So we asked our readers for their most recent cancellation stories, and received over 500 responses. Keep in mind as you read this that Nieman Lab readers are a weird (great! but weird) bunch. They’re more into news, and more likely to pay for it, than the average person; this isn’t an “ask some guy on the street” survey. Many of our respondents alluded to paying for more than one news subscription, which is not the norm. (2017 data suggests that about half of Americans pay for some kind of news, including making donations to public radio.) Only about one in five Americans pays for online news, according to the most recent data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.) The responses we received were largely thoughtful and detailed, and in many cases it was clear that people felt bad about canceling and hadn’t made the decision lightly. (Make sure you read to the end of this post!)

Here’s what we found in our survey. Click here to read all of the responses grouped by outlet, and stay tuned for an upcoming story on possible solutions to some of the problems mentioned here.

The New York Times accounted for nearly a quarter of all the cancellations in our survey, which probably isn’t surprising since it is also the largest newspaper in the U.S. Here are the most-canceled outlets in our survey, with “local newspapers” (including large local newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune, as well as smaller ones) combined in one category.

The No. 1 reason people say they cancel a subscription is money… Nearly a third of respondents — 31% — cited money as the primary reason they canceled a subscription. Some people canceled when promotional rates expired; others were irritated that subscriptions auto-renewed or that news organizations weren’t transparent about price. Respondents cited a lack of funds, often due to the Covid-19 pandemic and related income loss, as another reason for cancelling subscription. Some of those were folks who had multiple subscriptions and had to choose to cut back on one or more publications to help make ends meet. Others will seek promotional offers to the end.

My budget is tight these days. There were many expensive and unexpected expenses last year (leaking bedroom roof needing urgent repair; large tree removal due to storm damage; car repair due to winter ice; etc.). [The Nation]

It’s $1 for five months (so, basically free), and after that you just cancel and sign up again under a different email, so it’s basically free forever. and their regular price is ludicrous. [Newsday]

I did not want to cancel it; I had been a subscriber for decades. But the subscription rates skyrocketed at a time when my income was going in the other direction, and the service team was not willing to negotiate an affordable price for me. So things didn’t work out for either of us: I lost a subscription I wanted, and the paper lost a customer they could have kept if they’d been more willing and able to compromise. [Mercury News]

Too expensive (>$20 a month) [Lexington Herald-Leader]

…followed closely by ideology or politics. Thirty percent of respondents said that they canceled the news subscription due to ideology or politics. The publications that were most often implicated in this line of reasoning were The New York Times and The Washington Post, but other publications weren’t exempt. Many were not happy that James Bennett, the Times’ former opinion editor, chose to publish Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for the military to quash Black Lives Matter protests; others were only upset that the Times had apologized. Bret Stephens and Maggie Haberman got name-checked multiple times, as did, of course, Donald Trump.

I subscribed after Trump was elected. I wanted to support them, even though I have access through work. But I have become really annoyed with how much the Times has become a left-of-center newspaper. It doesn’t feel balanced anymore. I am left of center, but I need to feel that my news sources are open about where they are coming from. The Times acts like it is objective, but then doesn’t come off that way. Not in all of the reporting of course, which continues to be top notch, but in the presentation. I especially am turned off by the way they present headlines in the push notifications. [The New York Times]

Publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s editorial — calling for the use of military force against peaceful protestors on U.S. soil — was irresponsible and dangerous. […] The NYT’s apparent lack of reflection on why this was a problem — ‘It didn’t meet our standards’ — was the last straw regarding their decisions about what voices from the right to select for inclusion in the paper. [The New York Times]

The straw that broke the camel’s back was after publishing an op-ed piece supporting conservative views from a sitting U.S. Senator, The New York Times not only published a rebuttal (well, maybe okay) but then they apologized to their readers for essentially practicing journalism, promised it wouldn’t happen again, and then censored, and finally fired the editor who made the decision to expose Times readers to the thinking of the other side. [The New York Times]

For me, the Tom Cotton op-ed was the breaking point. The Times is profitable. They’ll be fine without my subscription, so I decided to direct that money to a local news org instead. [The New York Times]

Even $4 a month (on a student discount) is too much for a product whose core offering has increasingly become aggrieved and insane opinion columns about how anyone who has committed the grave sins of [checks notes] voting for Biden, being young or poor or nonwhite, or caring about people who are poor or nonwhite is actually a vile woke-mob leech who viscerally hates America and wants to see it destroyed from within. [The Wall Street Journal]

I didn’t like their pro-Brexit stance, I wasn’t willing to continue to read a newspaper that I had read daily for 20 years once it became clear that their editorial policy was becoming biased or at the very least nowhere near as challenging of the Brexit lobbyists’ arguments. I still miss doing the crossword and have not replaced the Times with another daily paper. [The Times of London]

After that, there were a myriad other reasons for canceling:

The content isn’t good enough. Thirteen percent of respondents said they’d canceled the subscription for what we categorized as non-ideological content concerns: They thought a publication had become too clickbaity or non-substantive, or found that the content generally wasn’t useful to them or just wasn’t worth paying for.

They had too many clickbait-style articles. I’d see a headline that looked interesting, go to the article and find that it was an opinion piece, not news. Or that it has a little fragment of news in it, with a lot of speculation around it. [The Washington Post]

I subscribed after the George Floyd murder to get local coverage on what was happening. But now that the Chauvin trial is over, most of their news is irrelevant to me since I live in DC. [Minneapolis Star Tribune]

Paper stopped covering City Council and county commission meetings and when asked said no one read those stories and replaced with features and columns, many of which were written by readers/businesses/amateurs … lack of any coverage of where vaccinations were available and how to get appointments. [The Spokane Spokesman-Review]

Too much to read, too little time. Another 13% of respondents said they’d canceled because of information overload; in the case of print publications, they saw them piling up unread. (This was a common reason cited for canceling The New Yorker; man, we miss The New Yorker Minute.)

Let it lapse because there was no option to not receive the hard copies in the mail and they just kept piling up. I know I should have donated them but I have very little energy after work — I’m clinically depressed and I can’t even keep my house clean very well. It felt wasteful to keep filling up the recycling bin with shiny new unread magazines. (Already read the digital version of the stories I was interested in before getting the mailed issue.) I feel shame about this and I miss not having to ration my click-throughs when I see links to stories I’m interested in. [The New Yorker]

I just didn’t have time to read it and while it was dirt cheap at $12 a year, I just couldn’t justify it. I’ve become slowly feeling trapped by online news writing. What I mean by that is, it’s never ending and yet I cannot remember a single word a week later… but print; I can remember entire passages years later and I tend to “get it” better compared to online. [Wired]

Customer-service issues. Finally, 12% of respondents to our survey said they had canceled primarily due to some kind of customer service or UX issues. Print newspapers were getting delivered too late (often, these people switched to online-only), or changing a subscription was so annoying that the subscriber decided it wasn’t worth it.

My wife wanted to go from twice a week to full seven days. Can’t do it by email with [Arizona Republic]. Told we have to call. Number to call seems to be regional phone center, constantly busy. Called Republic directly but were told to try to call earlier in the morning and maybe the call center wouldn’t be so busy. Always busy. Tried sending a letter to Republic, no answer. Tried sending letter to billing center, no answer. Finally went to bank and had auto withdrawal for monthly subscription canceled. Only response from Republic was that payment request was denied. [Arizona Republic]

They never delivered the actual newspaper despite maaaaaaany calls and they’re union-busting jerks. [Boston Globe]

Couldn’t access website easily, SO MANY POPUPS even when I had logged in, other places where I can access the info. [The Times-Picayune]

Actually, I didn’t intend to cancel. But when I canceled my Milwaukee Journal Sentinel subscription, the dreadful Gannett customer service canceled my Green Bay subscription as well, and I just said screw it. [Green Bay Post-Gazette]

They failed to deliver the Sunday newspaper to me multiple times a month. [The Desert Sun]

I had a print subscription for years, however I became aware that the ink they use to print is toxic. I typically reuse the newspaper in my garden or fire pit. I wanted to cancel the print subscription and just get digital, but in order to do that you have to call customer service. It seemed ridiculous that a phone call is required to cancel, when you can sign up just online. Felt like a cheesy, gimmicky way to try to retain customers. I was so irritated that I canceled the entire subscription. [The New York Times]

I didn’t think that the responses to our survey would make me cry, but that’s what happened.

One respondent, from Michigan, wrote about why he’d canceled his print subscription to The New York Times.

Really can’t afford to have it and have it lay unread. Spouse of 57 years passed in March and I’ve discovered reading Sunday alone without the precious, coffee-driven exchange of common enthusiasms is too dark a place for me. Maybe if my whole self gets regathered around a breakfast for one, maybe later. For now, my daily Battle Creek Enquirer and two, good local weeklies help keep alive my niche in community. [The New York Times]

In The New York Times, he didn’t see a stack of paper. He saw 57 years’ worth of Sunday mornings with the person he loved. Asked if he had anything else to add, he said: “I can’t believe I stopped the Sunday Times.”

As I write this, I realize that it sounds like a hokey ad campaign for print newspapers. Worse, an ad campaign targeted at sentimental old people! But it’s based in truth. My father-in-law, Ronnie, died last month at the age of 80. Giving the eulogy at his funeral, his oldest son passed out front pages of The Boston Globe to family members sitting in the first two rows as a reminder of how Ronnie communicated with his wife and seven children on weekday mornings — from behind the newspaper.

So many people who responded to our survey didn’t cancel their subscriptions lightly. Sadness and guilt were frequently tied up in their decisions. “The only reason I’d cancel is that I have no money,” wrote a woman who lost her job during the pandemic. “I feel horrible.”

Sometimes, in print publications, respondents saw expectations that they could not meet. One woman let her New Yorker subscription lapse because “hard copies just kept piling up.”

“I know I should have donated them but I have very little energy after work,” she wrote. “I’m clinically depressed and I can’t even keep my house clean very well. It felt wasteful to keep filling up the recycling bin with shiny new unread magazines…I feel shame about this.”

“Hard to remember what the particular issue was,” another woman wrote. But “I canceled with full knowledge of the crucial role that the NYT plays in American news and politics. They can do better. Cancellation of love.”

—Laura Hazard Owen

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2021, 2:38 p.m.
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