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Dec. 1, 2021, 2:46 p.m.
Reporting & Production

FTC: Let digital subscribers click to cancel. Newspapers: Hey, not so fast.

A look around the internet suggests the FTC hasn’t scared news orgs into immediately changing the options they offer online.

If you poke around the online cancellation policies of publishers with the most digital subscribers, one group emerges as outliers.

Digital news outlets like Insider (f.k.a. Business Insider) and the sports-focused site The Athletic offer online cancellation. The Atlantic and The New Yorker — magazines with strong digital subscriber numbers — offer straightforward ways to cancel online as well. Even the newsletter platform Substack, which celebrated 1 million paid subscriptions earlier this year, offers click-to-cancel.

And then … there’s the legacy newspapers on the list. Most won’t let their subscribers cancel online.

Why does this matter now? The Federal Trade Commission has vowed to ramp up enforcement on a number of marketing and subscription practices, including some — like making it easy to subscribe, but more difficult to cancel — that are in wide use in the news business. Its announcement last month was a policy statement, not a new rule. It draws on the already-implemented Section 5 of the FTC Act (that’s the one barring “unfair and deceptive acts or practices”) and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act and companies should already be in compliance, an FTC spokesperson told me.

The FTC declined to comment on whether the agency had notified any news companies that their subscription practices were falling afoul of their policy or if any publishers had been in touch to clarify their subscription practices. But a look around the internet suggests the FTC hasn’t scared news outlets into immediately changing the options they offer online.

Currently, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both require certain groups of subscribers to call or start a live chat to cancel their subscriptions.

The Times says it began offering easy online cancellation in March 2021, but only to subscribers who subscribe to its basic news product — and nothing else. If you also subscribe to a print edition or Cooking or Games or Wirecutter, you won’t see this option. (Bloomberg, by the way, also asks subscribers to start a chat to start the cancellation process — though you only have to converse with a bot, rather than a human customer service rep.)

“Once tested thoughtfully, we plan to roll out the ability to cancel online to all digital subscribers across our suite of products,” said Linda Zebian, a spokesperson for The New York Times. That could happen “next year,” though she offered no further specifics about the timeline.

Karl Wells, chief subscriptions officer at Dow Jones, pointed out that Barron’s, MarketWatch, and WSJ Student subscribers can already cancel online but wouldn’t say when the option would be extended to, say, regular digital subscribers of the Journal.

Wells did, though, offer a statement that didn’t quite answer the question: “At Dow Jones, we approach everything we do with the customer in mind. With multiple consumer brands in our portfolio, we pride ourselves on developing strong connections with our subscribers in order to better serve and engage with them.”

Major newspapers owned by McClatchy like The Miami Herald and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram appear to require customers to call to cancel, too. McClatchy did not respond to requests for comment.

On the other hand, The Los Angeles Times — with many subscribers already protected by a California law passed in 2018 — offers easy online cancellation.

Overall, it seems the number of online complaints about having to call to cancel reflects the number of subscribers a news organization has. (Top performers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal being two of the most-cited examples.) There was one major exception, though. The Washington Post, which offers easy online cancellation to digital news subscribers, seems to have avoided a backlash over its subscription policies.

Michael Ribero, chief subscriptions officer at The Washington Post, said his team is focused on the experience of digital news consumers, its fastest-growing segment of subscribers. (The Post still asks print subscribers to make a phone call to cancel.)

“An easy, seamless experience forms good relationships with customers, which is why we offer several ways for a reader to unsubscribe, including through a link on their Washington Post account page,” Ribero said. “Our hope is that if we provide a good offboarding experience, we will have a better opportunity to win back those subscribers in the long run.”

Over at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, senior vice president of circulation and chief marketing officer Steve Yaeger said the newspaper is not concerned with meeting the letter of the law on subscription practices. (“We already offer people the ability to cancel online, but we don’t lead with it,” he said.) He put online cancellation, however, in the larger context of account management — which includes payment method, changing the subscription, adding or subtracting products, preventing fraud, and more — and says many publishers, including the Star Tribune, know they have to improve their service online.

“From my perspective we’re there from a strict FTC guidance standpoint, but that’s not where we want to be,” Yaeger said. “We want to be better.”

“Why doesn’t this look or work like, say, Netflix?” he added. “We say those kinds of things even as we try to improve our own systems. A lot of other business have hundreds and hundreds of technical people. We don’t have that kind of scale. We have plans to improve things from a consumer standpoint. Sometimes it takes us a little longer.”

Publishers say online account management is complicated by the fact that newspapers acquire subscribers from a wide variety of channels, offer many combinations of subscriptions, and transact with customers in different ways. A digital subscription to the Star Tribune, for example, could have come through the website’s paywall, an iPhone app, a direct mailing, a telemarketer, or a face-to-face conversation with a staffer at a Star Tribune kiosk.

News organizations, understandably, want an opportunity to address fixable issues — like a delivery problem or confusion over billing — before cancellation. Yaeger pointed out that between 10 and 20% of Star Tribune subscribers who call to cancel wind up keeping their subscription after customer service was able to solve their issue.

“I think the best examples of online cancel processes mimic this. They mimic that interaction where there’s some back and forth to determine what’s motivating the subscriber to want to cancel because they’re looking for a solution,” he said. “There might not be one, right? There are all kinds of reasons why people need to cancel — like they’re moving — that don’t have solutions, but there sometimes is a consumer benefit in talking with us before canceling.”

Ultimately, Yaeger sees the FTC policies for companies — including news companies — as a good thing, even if offering online cancellation is a major change for the news industry.

“If it’s good for our customers, it’s going to be good for our business,” Yaeger said. “It doesn’t mean that it might not lead to a higher rate of cancellations or whatnot [in the short term] but I think over the long run, making things easy and convenient for customers is good for business.”

Illustration by Liam Briese used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 1, 2021, 2:46 p.m.
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