Subscription Hostages

Back in February, DHH took to Twitter to rant about the hoop-jumping required to cancel his SiriusXM subscription. Others shared their own subscription cancellation horror stories, and before long, I had something to chase down.

Today we released a new episode of the Rework podcast about our inquiry into hostile subscription tactics in the newspaper industry. I contacted major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about their online cancellation policies, which require a phone call or online chat (in the case of the NYT) to get out of a subscription. None would provide much comment on why they don’t offer online cancellation to all subscribers—I say “to all subscribers” because there is a small exception to the Journal’s policy.

The Wall Street Journal’s policy for California subscribers

The Wall Street Journal allows online cancellation for California-based customers because of a law introduced in 2017 that, among other things, requires companies that sell subscriptions online to let customers cancel the same way. Because the legislation applied to so many kinds of products, from gym memberships to cosmetics to software, it drew broad opposition from the California business community. One of the groups that pushed back was the California News Publishers Association, which represents newspapers in the state.

“The goal was to try to do everything we could to ensure those techniques and tools that newspapers had at their disposal to try to retain their subscribers could continue to be used,” said Jim Ewert, the CNPA’s general counsel. He said contacting subscribers to try and keep them as customers has been “a practice for at least a century.”

In other words, newspapers—like cable companies and other kinds of businesses—want to get exiting customers on the phone to persuade them to stay. But this tactic feels like a trick.

“I think it’s reasonable of them to ask” to have a conversation, said Laura Hazard Owen, deputy editor of NiemanLab. “I don’t think it’s reasonable of them to require it as a step for giving up your credit card information. You shouldn’t be held hostage until you’ve explained to a real human why you don’t want this anymore.”

I called up a friend from journalism school, Pete Mortensen, to get his take on why this dark pattern persists in the newspaper industry. Pete has worked in journalism, human-centered design, and the business side of media, and he traces the unfriendly subscription tactics to the very start of the industry’s fraught history with the Internet.

“One of the original sins of how we got here was the certainty that the real product was the print newspaper and the website, therefore, was at best an ad for the print publication,” Pete said. “A number of poor decisions cascaded and we’re all dealing with the fallout here almost 25 years later.”

For starters, newspapers didn’t charge for access to their websites. This conditioned readers to see the websites as inferior to the print product. Meanwhile, newspapers loaded up their websites with invasive ad technology, making for a miserable reading experience. In my past life as a newspaper reporter, it was endlessly frustrating that the deeply reported stories that deservedly received star treatment on A1 or section fronts were often nowhere to be found on the home page, which would be full of whatever news was deemed to get the most clicks—a numbing parade of breaking crime stories, aggregated wire stories about celebrities, or photo galleries, interspersed with junky ads.

Design and story selection, especially at larger papers, has improved, but as Pete puts it, “There’s a little bit of not feeling great about the overall digital experience as the ideal way to read and therefore, for digital-only subscriptions, they try to…make it really irritating to leave. That’s common whenever you have a product that people don’t really fully believe in—to feel the need to almost trick you into staying a customer.”

I asked Pete for an example of a newer media outlet setting a positive example in the realm of subscriptions, and he pointed to The Athletic, an ad-free sports publication that charges $9.99/month (and is easy to cancel online). In the Rework episode, I interview Jen Sabella, co-founder of Block Club Chicago, a neighborhood news nonprofit. It costs $59/year to subscribe to Block Club Chicago, which as Jen points out, works out to 16 cents a day. It’s also a simple click to cancel.

“I personally can’t stand when I have to jump through a bunch of hoops,” Jen said, adding: “We’re not trying to trick anyone. If you don’t find it valuable, we don’t want to make you pay.”

For more on newspaper subscription tactics, check out our episode! And to get new Rework episodes whenever we release one, subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, RadioPublic, or your favorite podcast app.   

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