Modern newspapers generally relish it when readers interact with them through letters to the editor, calls, and, increasingly, shares on social media. A recent flare-up on Facebook against The News Tribune’s distribution of advertising bundles that seem to land in gutters and on sidewalks more often than not, however, irked Tacoma residents into action.
A group of several dozen people held a “return to sender” rally on Saturday by dumping collections of several hundred advertising circulars to the daily newspaper’s front door as a way to protest what they call littering. The newspaper advertising bundles, they say, are being stuffed into orange plastic bags and tossed onto sidewalks, along streets and into clogged gutters. The protest made it onto King 5 News during Superbowl weekend.
“They are basically everywhere,” Claudia Riedener said.
She started seeing the discarded bags along her neighborhood street just south of 6th Avenue a few weeks ago and called to complain. She was advised to contact the newspaper’s customer service department and opt out of the free delivery. But that process could take up to two weeks, and the advertising circulars were dotting her street several times a week. She then started collecting them and posted her frustration about the litter on Facebook.
Others then did the same. More followed. And then more. And more. A full-on group rant developed. Several people, including subscribers to the newspaper, have since had their Facebook posts about the orange bags found in Tacoma gutters and under bushes removed from the TNT’s main page.
“We just picked up where we could, but it was too much,” she said. “They are everywhere.”
She and her husband, John, then collected a few hundred and dumped them in the lobby of the TNT offices. They were told to leave under threat of arrest two weeks ago. They did, but posted photos of the protest on Facebook, further fueling the discontent about what they say was a lack of responsive action.
They also received TNT emails stating their frustrations were unfounded.
“I have been out driving around town today, and have seen 0 products in the street, so I am confused as to where you picked up 100 of these,” TNT’s Vice President of Audience Development Phil Schroder wrote to Riedener in response to her email complaint. “If you let me know the area where you picked these up, I can assure you we will be out there next week to check on the delivery. I would encourage you not to pick these up and drop them in our lobby anymore. We have quality control teams out every week checking, but if you pick them up, how would I know I have a delivery quality problem?”
Ironically, Schroder had written an article in December for the marketing trade publication International News Media Association that highlighted the need for strong customer service.
“According to the American Express 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer, 66 percent of Americans are willing to spend an average of 13 percent more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. Also, in the past year, 55 percent of consumers have intended to conduct a business transaction or make a purchase, but decided not to based on a poor service experience. So good customer service can translate into a higher revenue per customer and be the decision point of someone purchasing our product. Again, these are probably obvious conclusions to many of us, but the problem is: We aren’t listening. … If the publisher walks into our audience department, he can ask any of our employees about the No. 1 goal of our department. And they always answer: ‘Satisfying the customer.’”
That seems like a practice what you preach moment as far as Whitman Area Neighborhood activist Leslie Young is concerned. She spotted the Facebook comments and voiced her thoughts after seeing the signature orange bags in her neighborhood.
“I think I started tripping over those bags a few weeks ago, and didn’t even know what they were,” she said, noting that she was seeing more and more comments and photos of wet and muddy bags in gutters around the city last week. “Then they were everywhere.”
She wrote an e-mail to TNT Publisher David Zeeck to alert him of her concerns. He responded that discarding the advertisements along the roadway was not littering, because newspapers are exempt from littering laws. He further explained that the newspaper’s distribution auditors weren’t reporting discarded papers in the volumes residents were describing.
“I was not impressed,” she said. “Whatever happened to the ‘customer is always right?’ I mean, I don’t know him personally, but his letter back to me was defensive and rude. There was no apology or anything. I just find it frustrating from a customer-service standpoint. Obviously, they have a problem with their contractors. Now they have a zillion people pissed off at them for not handling it. It is funny and sad at the same time.”
The advertising bundles are delivered by contractors who are paid by the number of pieces they deliver. A distribution manager monitors their deliveries. That disconnect seems to be at the heart of the issue for Tacoma cartoonist and Tinkertopia owner RR Anderson, who lives in Central Tacoma. He helped organize the “Return to Sender” event after seeing discarded advertising bags around his street.
“No one likes wet, muddy newspaper bags,” he said. “It’s nasty. I understand that they have to do what they have to do to survive, but people just don’t like litter in their yards.”
Anderson has no immediate plans to repeat the “Return” protest, but wouldn’t be surprised if other protests take hold, especially with TNT plans to not only continue the practice but expand the distribution to University Place, a city not known for being silent on community concerns.
“They are going to go insane,” Anderson said. “So, that’s going to bring Phase Two.”
City Councilmember Marty Campbell looked into the issue to see if the distribution of the advertising bags violated the city’s litter laws and found that newspapers are, indeed, exempt. That could change, but the council hasn’t discussed it. He did note that he alerted Zeeck about a cluster of a dozen or so bags on a street island at Division and Morton. Zeeck reportedly collected the bags personally.
“Their early response to this had been in the area of denial, and I think they have changed that,” Campbell said.
For his part, Zeeck has personally driven around the city looking for the discarded bundles and hasn’t seen the troubles the group has described. He noted that the people complaining appear to represent a small minority.
Only about a dozen or so people have complained about discarded advertising bundles, while more than 50,000 people are receiving them, he said, and while some call to opt out, others have called to say their houses were missed.
“I cruised around a several block area and found one,” Zeeck said of the bundles. “I’m just not seeing them in the streets. “
He further defended the free delivery of mid-week advertising bundles as a way to pay for the expenses associated with running a newspaper, versus direct mail pieces that draw money to companies outside the area.
“I think that is really important,” he said. “I am not going to apologize for something that supports local journalism. I just don’t see the issue the same as they do, but I respect their perspective.”
Future plans the practice could include adding news content to the bundles and expanding into other areas, but no specifics have been decided, Zeeck said.
For people who see bundles in the streets, he suggests that they should simply call customer service to report the sightings rather than pick them up. If delivery cars are seen routinely missing households, people should report license plate numbers and call the TNT offices so the practice can be corrected, because a bundle of advertising left in a gutter or under a tree doesn’t do anyone any good.
“There is no business model out there where that makes sense,” he said.