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.   


Did You Order the Code Red?

“Passwords just aren’t cutting it online. It’s getting worse. We all feel it.” This is what Jeremy from Basecamp’s Security, Infrastructure, and Performance team wrote in a February blog post after dealing with a mass-login attack. Intruders with huge lists of login credentials—obtained in previous data breaches—tried using those passwords to access Basecamp accounts. Hear how Basecamp addressed the immediate incident and was also forced to reflect on longer-term plans for customer security in an increasingly insecure age.

Hiring Is Not Hazing

Why are manhole covers round? How many golf balls can fit in a 747? Why are job interviews so terrible? In the latest episode of the Rework podcast, Aja Hammerly, a developer advocate at Google, talks about the drawbacks of common tech interview techniques like whiteboard coding and trivia questions, and shares her tips for improving the process by making it about discovering the candidate’s best qualities.

For further reading on interviewing, check out Aja’s post “There Is No Perfect Interview” and these posts by Jim Mackenzie of Basecamp’s Support team: “Interview or Interrogation?” and “Under Pressure.”

Remote Work: Extreme Edition

In the latest episode of the Rework podcast, we place a long-distance phone call to Antarctica to chat with Kathrin Mallot, an astrophysicist who works at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole. In this episode, Kathrin talks about preparing for a work assignment in a super remote part of the world; practicing self-care during the punishing Antarctic winter; getting along with coworkers that you also live with in close quarters; frozen nose hairs, snacks, Internet access, and more!

Reblog

The folks at Basecamp have been blogging since 1999, when Jason Fried would write by the light of a fire fueled by David Heinemeier Hansson’s savage indictments of the tech industry. A lot has changed since then (with the exception of DHH’s feelings about Silicon Valley). Basecamp’s blog, Signal v. Noise (the site you’re reading right now!), changed platforms a few times. And it just moved again, this time from Medium to WordPress. In this episode of the Rework podcast, Jason and designer Adam Stoddard talk about leaving Medium for WordPress, the blog’s new look, and keeping SvN fresh after all these years. 

Happy Pacifists

Business rhetoric is rife with the language of war — there’s constant talk of conquering markets and dominating the competition. These tropes indicate a dangerous way of thinking that can have real consequences, intended or not, on human behavior. In this episode of the Rework podcast, two professors share their research on the impact of violent rhetoric on business ethics, and a member of Basecamp’s Support team talks about communication techniques that get us out of the mentality that everything is a zero-sum game.

Sometimes It’s Crazy At Work

In October, Jason Fried and DHH released their new book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. The book featured their writing, as well as cover art and interior illustrations from Basecamp designers Adam Stoddard and Jason Zimdars. The launch initially seemed like a great success — but then things went awry. In this episode of the Rework podcast, we look at the work that went into the book and the problems with the release, and attempt to find some lessons in the aftermath.

The Worst Performance Review

Source

Annual, semi-annual, quarterly, 360…no matter what form they take, performance reviews can be anxiety-inducing workplace rituals. In today’s episode of the Rework podcast, we talk to the head of HR at an HR software company (meta!) and a Basecamp designer about why helpful feedback is so difficult to give and receive — and what can be done to improve the process.