By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

More on the Lens ploy by a miffed GateHouse customer

I received this on Saturday from a friend who lives on the North Shore. Read the whole thing, but I think he’s put his finger on exactly what GateHouse is up to: most customers pay for their local GateHouse paper by credit card, and it renews automatically. Unless they are unusually sharp observers, they don’t notice when their subscription is renewed earlier than it ought to be because they are receiving unsolicited “premium” content such as Lens.

Note: As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve learned from commenters on Facebook that GateHouse is not alone. Digital First Media and Gannett are among the other newspaper chains alleged to have done this. The full text of my friend’s email follows.

I noticed your post this morning about GateHouse and its Lens magazine, and wanted to let you know what I’ve picked up. But since I’m not a Facebook member and never will be, I don’t appear to be able to post there. Hence this email.

Coincidentally, I’ve been going back and forth with GateHouse over the last month and a half about this. I got a renewal notice for the Tri-Town Transcript back at about the end of January. It said my subscription would expire on Feb. 19. I’ve subscribed ever since we moved to Topsfield more than 20 years ago (of course the paper has gone through several owners in that time) and I was certainly willing to resubscribe—I’d even written the check out.

As I was about to put it in the envelope, I couldn’t shake the feeling that February was awfully early for my sub to expire. So I went back through my records and found that last year I wrote the check to GateHouse in April, and the year before in May. (Prior to that the calendar date on the checks was stable from year to year.)

So I called GateHouse and was told my subscription renewal date had creeped back to February (from April) in the past year because I had received two issues of something called Lens magazine. I was docked three weeks of Tri-Town each for two issues of Lens—six weeks. I looked it up on the Internet and found a couple of past covers, neither of which I recalled every receiving. I can’t say that I didn’t, but if I did it went right into recycling; it’s nothing I’m interested in and certainly nothing I would pay for. GateHouse directed me to the “fine print” on the back of my bill, which is similar to what is in the image you posted. There are differences—much of the language on the back of my Tri-Town bill refers to “TV Times,” which I assume is in the daily GateHouse papers. There’s no mention of Lens. The key passage is “Due to the size and value of premium editions thee will be up to a $2.00 surcharge on each date of premium. However, rather than assess an extra charge for premium editions we will adjust the length of your subscription, which accelerates the expiration of your subscription, when you receive these premium editions. There will be no more than 12 premium editions per calendar year.”

So I suppose I should feel lucky that I was only docked 6 weeks, as according to GateHouse it could have been 36 (out of 52).

I pointed out to the GateHouse customer service person I was talking to that none of this is on the front of the subscription renewal form, where it specifically says I’m paying $35.58 for 52 weeks of the Tri-Town Transcript, and even specifies the calendar dates of the subscription term. This made no impression on the customer service person.

They finally said they would allow me to opt out of future “premium editions.” It took a few more calls over the next few weeks to get to a manager, who said they could restore the lost 6 weeks to my subscription. Flushed with success on that point, I pressed ahead as I’d evidently lost 6 weeks in the previous year’s subscription as well. When they wouldn’t give on that, I canceled my subscription (I’m sure I’ll still get some bill for a cancellation fee or whatever papers they have sent since February—we’ll see how that goes, as they’re not getting another cent out of me).

The poor customer service rep said she had to have a reason for my cancellation.  I told her it was because of the company’s business practices.

GateHouse will allow you to opt out if you call them, but why should the onus be on the subscriber? And why is that not stated up front with the annual subscription rate? And why is that option not on the renewal form itself? And if the magazines are so “premium” and so desirable, why isn’t there an option to subscribe to them rather than having them forced on subscribers until they opt out?

Over the weeks I’ve raised all these questions and others with several consumer advocacy agencies. So far the only response I’ve received is to the complaint I filed with the attorney general, which was a form letter saying they have limited resources and would not investigate because there is no “widespread and significant harm to multiple consumers” and there is no “pattern of complaints involving multiple consumers.” 

I’ve written a follow-up letter pointing out that there is indeed widespread harm because this is affecting thousands of subscribers, many of who are on automatic renewal because of the company’s policy of collecting credit card numbers (as oppose to those of us who still pay by check) and renewing them year to year without ever sending out a notice. And I suggested the reason there is no “pattern of complaints” is because it is a deception—they’re ripping people off without most people knowing it. I think this is exactly the type of thing the attorney general’s office should protect people against, but apparently Maura Healey and I differ.

I’ve also got complaints on file with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and Call for Action. Haven’t heard back yet. But I’m not expecting much. I’m mostly venting. All I can do is cancel.

Please leave a comment here or on Facebook.

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  1. Jerry Ackerman

    Dan, a CNHI customer rep informed me a few weeks ago, when I suspended delivery of the Gloucester Daily Times for seven days, that they were no longer giving credit for skipped deliveries and, as had been true, extending the subscription for an equal amount of time. However, I could receive the missed papers, bundled up and delivered, upon my return. Soon I will be going away for 12 days–and this time I am thinking of cancelling my existing subscription and then entering a new subscription to begin 12 days later. The sole disadvantage I can see in this plan as that online access to the G.D. Tmes will be cut off during that lapse. That is a loss, to be sure, so I am still undecided. On the up-side, at least philosophically, this affirms that the news content has real monetary value. And while subversive in its way, this is not as sneaky as GateHouse’s practice with Lens.

    On another front, CNHI is hiking the Saturday paper newsstand price to $1.50 per copy. I would guess the home-delivery price will go up too. From my perspective the only extra value on Saturdays is a full-week, ad-supported TV guide (long ago dropped by the Boston papers), plus various ad flyers, including Market Basket. I don’t use the TV guide, depending instead on the Globe’s daily listings and/or on the Comcast on-screen guide. But the Market Basket flyer IS important. Ah, the dilemmas of country life!

    • Dan Kennedy

      Jerry, I heard several complaints from people who told me that the Globe was extending subscriptions rather than paying refunds for missed papers during the recent home-delivery fiasco. I actually don’t have a problem with that as long as it doesn’t somehow interfere with a cancellations request.

      As for higher prices without added value — we are moving into the post-advertising era. As you and I both know, the money’s got to come from somewhere.

      • Jerry Ackerman

        Dan, I did my Globe vacation suspension via telerobot, and don’t recall any mention of what you describe. I’ll listen more closely next time around. My CNHI contact was through a pleasant human customer rep.

  2. Mark Henderson

    “There is no ‘widespread and significant harm to multiple consumers’ ” Really? GH operates 9 dailies and 87 paid weeklies in Massachusetts. Russian phone scammers reach fewer people in Massachusetts. I guess the message from the AG is that as long as it’s less than $10 you can hit as many people as you want.

  3. Andre Mayer

    I see that the ProJo is designating some special sections (e.g., baseball preview) as premium content with similar effect on sub terms.

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