Business of News: Using Data Can Create a Better Experience for Newspaper Readers

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The internet has severely disrupted the business models of four legacy industries: banking, retail, health insurance and newspapers. All four have made massive changes, but based on four recent personal experiences—three of them are doing a great job of keeping my business. And the one I love the most? Not so much.

Profits are rising in banking (albeit after considerable consolidation), health insurance (given a boost by the Affordable Care Act) and retail (where the strong have survived with a great online presence). Newspaper profits have sunk over the same period.

All four have upset their models and changed approach, but three are using data and the internet to drive better customer experiences. Our industry is not. Here are the four cases:

Target: You might have had the pleasure of returning an item to Target at some time. Open box? Lost the receipt? No problem. Target is known for this. And it has translated to

A chair arrived two days after our online order, but, unfortunately, the legs were not in the box. Or so we thought. We called Target. They answered in two rings. Apologized profusely and sent a new chair. Again, no legs.

My son looked disdainfully at his parents, poked around the underside of the chair, lifted upholstery affixed with Velcro, and found the legs. He found them on the original chair too. We sheepishly called Target to get instructions on how to return one chair. The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Gallagher, we see you have been a loyal customer and we would like to offer you the second chair complimentary. Please keep it as a token of our appreciation for being such a loyal Target shopper.”

Mic drop.

Chase: Their new “service fees” are awful, but customer service is excellent. Online handles about 95 percent of my needs.

They did fumble recently. I thought I had complied with a new policy regarding transferring funds between accounts. I came up short in one account and was charged a $34 overdraft fee. I got Darleen, a Chase representative, on the phone in less than a minute and explained. She said she had no record of my action, but she would take care of it on the spot. “What about the $34 fee?” And in less than a minute, I got the, “Mr. Gallagher, we see you have been a Chase customer for 22 years…” and I got my money back. (Note: I was asked to “participate in a customer service survey at the end of your call” and Darleen got all 10s.)

Kaiser: Health insurance companies—we love to hate them. And it still takes an accountant to read the bills I get, but they are on the ball. After I tweeted about a confusing bill, a Kaiser rep tweeted back to me with an offer to help. When I didn’t immediately respond, the rep tweeted back a day later.

After a recent minor surgery in the morning, the doctor called me in the afternoon and the next morning. The surgery involved remove some basal cell carcinoma from my face and the surgery center was 45 minutes from home. “Don’t worry about driving all the way for follow-ups,” the doctor said. “Here’s my cell number and my email. Just text me a photo or email it to me.”

Newspaper: I love my local newspaper. In spite of severe cuts, they do a very good job covering local news. I look forward to it at the door each morning. But not when I am on vacation. Before a recent 6-day vacation I went online to place a vacation stop. Being cautious, I stopped it a day before I was to leave. The paper came anyway. I called. I was assured the stop had been recorded. The carrier was being sent a text message. The district manager was receiving an email. They assured me it would stop.

Thank goodness my adult children live nearby and can check on the house because that newspaper did not stop for three more days.

Every editor, publisher, reporter or clerk who has dared to answer the phone before 8 a.m. has gotten similar calls. As publishers, we would often receive similar calls from advertising customers who had received an incomprehensible invoice, or a late notice sent seven days after the first invoice.

Blaming the decline of newspapers on poor customer service is simplistic. There are a myriad of causes. But the object lesson here is that some industries have dealt with the disruption and managed to keep the focus on the customer. In fact, in the case of Target and Chase, they made my data available to their representatives to make me feel like I matter.  Are we doing that in our industry?




Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at


One thought on “Business of News: Using Data Can Create a Better Experience for Newspaper Readers

  • November 18, 2016 at 8:53 am

    The base problem for newspapers is how to replace lost advertising revenue. We have to find a way to sell information instead of selling ad space.


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