Staring into the Abyss: The Seattle Times’ Kafkaesque Subscription System

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Does the Seattle Times have a death wish? I know the idea sounds crazy. We’re told all the time (in the Seattle Times) how heroically it’s fighting to survive in these parlous Times for the press. And I’m speaking only from my own experience, over years of trying to subscribe to the paper. I suppose if anyone else has had a similar experience we’ll hear about it in Comments.

The first time I suspected the Times might have looked too long into an abyss was nearly a decade ago, when I went to buy a digital subscription and discovered the price was nearly $400 a year—hard to feature when I could get the online New York Times for a dollar a week and the WaPo for even less. But even if I couldn’t afford the sub, I could get a couple SeaTimes newsletters to keep tabs on local headlines and determine which occasional articles I wanted to read free—right?

Wrong. I enrolled and signed up again and again for one newsletter or another—Morning Brief, Evening Brief, even, warily (those stodgy editorials, and where do they get those columnists?) Viewpoint. Alas, no Local News or Danny Westneat newsletter is offered. And again and again—nothing. 

For years, the newsletters never arrived. Would any newspaper with a healthy lust for life brush off a would-be reader like this? I wondered briefly if some editor who was still miffed at something snooty I wrote decades ago had put me on the “Do not serve” list, but then remembered that I’d been writing a few features for the paper’s Pacific magazine..

A year or two later I tried again and—bingo! The newsletters arrived. The items in them were frustrating—unlike the pithy summaries provided in NYT newsletters–and mostly clickbait to encourage readers to subscribe. Fair enough—at least the paper was trying.

At the same, the Seattle Times’ online subscription rates came down a bit; they’re now $5 a week, only five times what I pay for the New York Times, with a Sunday paper thrown in if you want it. (I presume they want to keep the numbers up for their most viable ad vehicle.) When I went to sign up, I found an even better promotional deal: online sub plus daily paper for about $2 or $3 a week for something like seven months, after which it would kick up to full price (currently $617.48 a year). A genuine newsprint newspaper every morning—what a concept! 

Alas, I discovered that I, like nearly everyone else, had drifted too far from that old newsprint notion. Reading the paper, or at least scanning it for things worth reading, became as much a chore as a nostalgic ritual. Retrieving copies from the bushes in the chill and rain was a small misery. The only Seattleite I know who still subscribes to the daily printed newspaper has unread, rolled up papers piled like cordwood in her living room. “They’re having a hard time,” she says when asked why she still gets them. Of course she only has to pay about $360 a year for them. Airline pricing, caveat emptor.

I tried to give the Times a break. I told its circulation people to switch my daily sub to online-only and save a few bucks on printing and delivery. Oh no, they said, that would kick you up to the (higher) full online rate. Okay, I tried, I said, and fished the paper out of the bushes for a few more months, then cancelled home delivery and got an online-plus-Sunday sub.

Then the Times delivered another curve ball. Along with the daily news briefs, I started receiving several installments a day of something called “Fan Fix” which “covers all things sports, with an emphasis on local teams and athletes. From the preps to the pros, it’s essential reading for local sports fans.” Not a Sounder, Kraken, Mariner, or Seahawk, or their scholastic counterparts, could shoe up without landing in my inbox.

I am not signed up for Fan Fix. I have never signed up for Fan Fix. Far from “fixating,” I don’t give a flying puck about most of what it covers. The only sports events to grab me this season are Sue Bird’s retirement and Seattle’s new major-league cricket team. I learned about the latter in The Economist in December. The Times finally covered it, in much more depth, last week (April 2).. 

I called the circulation department and explained the problem. The nice young man in Delhi or Manila told me to correct my newsletter settings. That’s not the problem, I explained. Finally he or someone I got on another call connected me to someone who said he would fix the problem. It didn’t get fixed. The Fan Fix carpet bombing continued.

It got worse. The news briefs I’d ordered stopped arriving, but Fan Fix continued. Enough I said, even more in sorrow than in irritation. I canceled my sub and blocked further payments.

Turns out that doesn’t mean living entirely without the Times. The Sunday paper continues landing in my walkway or bushes every week. I called once and told circulation, but now I’m not going to worry about it. Been there, done too much of that. It’s still nice to start the day with “Doonesbury.”

Fan Fix keeps filling my inbox, or rather the upstream spam bin at my email service, where I consigned info@email.seattletimes.com to the blacklist. That means even if the paper decides to send me news briefings again, I won’t see them. I’m done worrying about it.

Still, I can’t help puzzling over this organizational behavior. It’s hard to chalk it off to simple ineptitude. Does the Times figure sports news, which gets its own front page, is its best bid for survival? Is it trying to turn everyone into a sports fan? Will we soon have the Seattle Sporting Times?

Or is this a cry for help? Talk to the Times. Ask how it’s feeling. Maybe it will listen to you.

Eric Scigliano
Eric Scigliano
Eric Scigliano has written on varied environmental, cultural and political subjects for many local and national publications. His books include Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, Love War and Circuses (Seeing the Elephant), Michelangelo’s Mountain, Flotsametrics and the Floating World (with Curtis Ebbesmeyer), The Wild Edge, and, newly published, The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon and a Race to Save the Planet.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with you. Management needs to read this and pay attention. We are old world paper subscribers and digital users of Seattle Times, as well as NYT, WSJ and WaPost. (I know, too much.) Paying Seattle Times 5 times more to read the online article that appeared yesterday in the NYT doesn’t make sense, but we want to support local news. The Blethens need to wake up or the loyalists will walk away.

  2. There’s another problem: The paper is poorly edited.

    One: They run too many too-long stories, and too often the length is not justified by the subject. However, this requires fewer paid editors so as to hold down costs for personnel. A morning paper should offer mostly shorter, punchy items, not magazine length compositions.

    Two: The paper more and more reflects to old Oregonian as it emphasizes feature material over hard news.

    Three: Political coverage is weak. That’s been true for decades. But in trying to satisfy a wide territory of metropolitan area readers (shrinking?) they skim the easy stories. EG: They never did an examination of the damage caused by Kashama Sawant’s bullying of the City Council, both the institution itself and most especially the male members.

    Some of the Times” investigative pieces have been good. Linda Mapes work merits high praise. And of course, Danny Westneat’s work is the best in town, if not the state.

    I sympathize with Mr. Scigliano’s comment. It leaves me with this question: Is the candle worth the price?

    Sam Sperry

  3. The Post has a number of subscription offices which include ones in Bedlam, Chaos, Limbo and Purgatory. Which one were you in contact with?

  4. The Times keeps charging its readers more and providing less. It raises its subscription rates without mention, let alone explanation. The news hole has been shrinking steadily, with more and more content lifted from other media. The Times devotes a huge percentage of its editorials to “saving” the free press, which mostly refers to measures that would economically benefit its owners. It constantly complains about the financial peril of the news industry, but it won’t disclose its own finances. (Are the Blethens really losing money? What do they earn in salaries?) The Times touts local ownership, but it owns newspaper in other cities.

  5. F*** ’em. F*** ’em. F*** ’em. That’s my mantra after contacting their “customer service” people multiple times.

    I’m usually a little more articulate than that, but that’s also how I felt about the Times after dealing with their ever increasing rates and diminishing product. So, after fifty-some years of a daily paper, we gave it up.

    Their business model is broken. F*** ’em.

  6. I devoured this article — Eric, and found myself nodding in agreement, even though I want to subscribe to the print AND the digital editions, and support newspapers in America, and especially in Seattle. About those high prices: The Seattle Times keeps offering big discounts on subscription prices. Problem is, they spoil a reader for ever paying full price again. I solve the problem by picking it up at brick and mortar every day. Reading Danny Westneat alone is worth the subscription price. And I’ll forever be grateful to the Times’ editorial board for sounding the alarm about police-abolitionist Lisa Thomas Kennedy, then the Democratic candidate for city attorney, and the way she described police officers as “Nazis” and “pigs” and “stains on humanity.” (I was just kidding, she later explained to a KOMO reporter. Uh-huh.) So the Times will always have a place in front of my coffee cup.

  7. I negotiated with them when the subscription jumped after the intro rate to $30 per month. I brought up that I pay $15 for the NYT. And then they asked what I would pay and I said $15 per month or I’d leave: and that’s what I pay.

  8. I canceled my ST and NYT print delivery (which ST handled) due to constant delivery problems. Their off-shore helpline was not helpful. Nothing like coming home from a vacation with a mound of newspapers at your door. I had to get rid of my wood stove and install a gas fireplace because I had no paper to light my kindling and I had to start sending gifts through Amazon because I had no paper ballast for my shipping containers.
    Currently my wife pays for an online subscription to ST and has quite a few complaints, while I read unlimited online by disabling cookies. The only negative aspect of disabling cookies is that I cannot read the extremist right and left rants in the comment section. Now that I think of it, this is a positive aspect.
    My frugal friends who are former newspaper workers use the library to get online copies. That says a lot right there. We all want a free press, for free.

  9. I happily subscribe to The Seattle Times and find its pricing reasonable and its home delivery excellent.

    Without The Seattle Times, we wouldn’t know that CHOP “security” likely shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager; that our former mayor, Jenny Durkan, and police chief, Carmen Best, probably manually erased texts about the abandonment of the East Precinct; that another former mayor, Ed Murray, likely sexually abused minors; that the criminal Frank Colacurcio, Sr ran a scheme to buy the City Council…I could name many many more examples of The Times’ great reporting. That’s why the paper has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes.

    In recent years, the paper has added two new columnists, Naomi Ishisaka and Marcus Harrison Green, who are giving voice to the concerns and experience of communities of color too often missing from Seattle media.

    The elevation of Michele Matassa Flores and Lynn Jacobson, to Executive Editor and Managing Editor respectively and the hiring of newer talented reporters Sydney Brownstone, Heidi Groover, David Gutman, Daniel Beekman, Gene Balk and Esmy Jimenez (among others) and the retention of terrific veteran scribes Jim Brunner, Nina Shapiro, Dominic Gates, Paul Roberts, Mike Carter and Linda Mapes (among others) make it clear that The Times will continue to be an excellent regional newspaper.

    I could go on and on. Instead, I urge you to subscribe and donate today.

  10. We get the print edition daily, in part because my partner was a Times paperboy way back when. Not a very good reason to subscribe, I know, but nostalgia is a powerful force.

    • That’s as good a reason as any. My little brother was a paperboy, too. I guess most of the kids just ditched their papers somewhere….

  11. They need to allow subscribers to manage their subscription online. Allow subscribers to view their current subscription cost and when any promotional rates expire, and allow online cancellation.

  12. My little brother confirms he WAS a Seattle Times paper boy..but only a little while.there was always somebody who complained to these little boys, and refused to pay, he says.

    Anyway, nostalgia is as good a reason as any to subscribe.

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