Big Glitch In Delivery Switch p.12

By: DOROTHY GIOBBE ANEW DISTRIBUTION system at the Cincinnati Enquirer got off to a rocky start last week as thousands of subscribers complained about late delivery or no delivery at all for days in a row.
Subscribers jammed the Enquirer's customer service line for over a week, prompting Cincinnati Bell to repeatedly shut down the number out of fear of disrupting the entire network. Some readers, after not receiving a paper for days, placed signs on their front lawns pleading, "Please Stop Here And Give Me My Newspaper."
"We're making day-by-day progress," said Enquirer spokeswoman Marie Gemelli-Carroll. "We're trying to convey through the media that we appreciate our customers' patience and indulgence as we admit to some bumps in the road."
Gemelli-Carroll said that the newspaper has not compiled a tally on the number of missed or delayed deliveries. She added, however, that credits would be extended to customers who request them.
The Enquirer has a daily circulation of 205,000, and 355,000 on Sundays.
The disruptions followed the Enquirer's move, beginning Aug. 1, to eliminate its longtime practice of selling the newspaper through 506 wholesalers. It now uses a newly established network of independent delivery agents.
Under the old system, wholesalers bought papers in bulk sold them to subscribers, sometimes adding surcharges as high as $6 per month. The desire to standardize prices was a primary reason for the change, Enquirer representatives said.
Ending relationships with wholesalers has been contentious, however. The Enquirer has so far spent $9.5 million on settlements, reported the Associated Press, and 174 wholesalers went to court in an effort to block the new system, but a federal judge refused to act.
The judge did, however, prevent the Enquirer from using the wholesalers' subscriber list, leaving the newspaper to rely on outdated customer information.
The discrepancies ? in effect, not having accurate information on the addresses of its current subscribers ? caused most of the delivery problems, according to Gemelli-Carroll.
"When we launched the conversion, we knew there were some gaps in the list, and we're now trying to fill in those gaps to bring our records up to reliability," she said.
Aside from the most basic items such as name and address, subscriber lists typically contain customer data that can be utilized in a variety of ways, including research and promotion, or offered to advertisers as added value.
Building and maintaining a reliable customer database has become a priority for most newspapers, and industry analysts regularly list them as among newspapers' most significant assets.
Under the new system, the Enquirer regains control of its subscriber database.
"Having direct contact [with the database] gives us the opportunity to know the customers, to provide opportunities for the paper to grow its circulation, and to expand opportunities for our advertisers," Gemelli-Carroll said.
The newspaper has spent about $1 million to update and rebuild the database and has run full-page ads in the newspaper encouraging customers to call in to verify account information.
In place of the wholesalers, the Enquirer contracted about 800 independent delivery agents.
The paper uses 32 trucks to carry bundles from the downtown printing plant to 12 distribution centers around the city, where they are picked up by the agents, assembled, and delivered according to route.
The Enquirer also has added a third press that allows later sports and news.
In preparation for the switch, the Enquirer also expanded its customer service department. Some 25 extra people were on hand the first day to help out, including 10 "loaner" carriers and 10 district managers from other Gannett Co. newspapers.
But despite the planning, there were significant delays and outright misses. Local media covered the glitches, as did the Enquirer, with reporters interviewing frustrated subscribers and confused carriers.
A Cincinnati Bell spokesman estimated that on Aug. 1, there were about 4,000 calls to the Enquirer customer service line every five minutes ? or48,000 an hour ? between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. The volume declined by half later in the morning.
Carriers worked to respond to the complaints, but many home-delivery subscribers still hadn't received their copies four days after the changeover.
Charles Prince, who works at a weekly paper in Ohio, gets the Enquirer at his home in Cincinnati. Before the change, he called the newspaper to make sure he was on the circulation list. But after not receiving the paper for several days, he called customer service over 50 times from Aug. 1 to Aug. 5 ? only to hear a busy signal.
After calling the publisher's office on Saturday, Prince was assured he would receive a paper in a matter of hours. It never arrived. The same thing happened on Sunday.
Early the following week, it was still difficult, if not impossible, to get through to the customer service number. Calls on Monday and Tuesday were met with a busy signal.
The Gannett-owned Enquirer has a joint operating agreement with Scripps Howard's Cincinnati Post in which Gannett is the managing partner. The Post's distribution system was not affected by the switch, and there are no plans at present to change.
"It was their decision not to make that switch on our part," said Post managing editor Bob Kraft.
"I couldn't tell you why, but the downside is that if our subscribers want to get through on a routine call, they can't because the number's been jammed," Kraft continued.
Gemelli-Carroll called the switch a "business decision" based on long-term cost savings for the Enquirer, which has more routes and a greater market penetration than the evening Post, circulation 82,000 daily, 114,000 Saturday.
"The Enquirer stood to gain from the conversion, and it wasn't necessary that the Post routes convert," she said.
Calls to Enquirer publisher Harry M. Whipple were not returned.


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