The New York Times Cancels My Subscription – and 8 Million Others! A Missed Opportunity

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I received the following email from The New York Times at 1:04 pm.

Not me. Of course, as you may have read, The Times committed a big boo-boo yesterday when it accidentally cancelled the subscriptions of 8 million print and online subscribers. The media and Twitter scribes were all over it in the intervening three hours before the Times sent out this correction at 4:19 pm:

The Correction

 

The Times did the right thing, of course, but I’d like to make a point about content and tone of the correction. Aren’t they in the communication business? Note the cold tone of voice and shortness of the second email. Why was the first email sent in error? How did it happen? Subscribers would have welcomed a more detailed explanation.

A Missed Opportunity to Engage Readers

A Forbes writer, who also received an email, tried calling the Times and kept getting busy signals. It’s a sure bet that many, many other subscribers had the same experience.

Sure, it was nice to receive an apology. But The Times missed a great opportunity to engage with its subscribers. The paper could have used some humor in its message and personalized it with the signature of an actual person.  Can a company write a letter?  Didn’t a human being write this missive?

The Times wrote a story online about the mistake at 2:29 pm and sent out this  message in its official Twitter feed, “If you received an e-mail today about canceling your New York Times subscription, ignore it. It’s not from us.” Oh, yes, it was. Turns out the email was sent by a Times employee, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokesperson. And why the delay of almost 90 minutes before the subscribers received the apology?

The Times Email Could Have Said —

Dear Valued New York Times Reader,

Wow, did we goof! We did NOT cancel your subscription. Please ignore our earlier email with the subject line, “Important information regarding your subscription.”

It was an honest mistake — someone pushed the wrong button and we had 8 million unhappy readers for a couple of hours before we fixed things. Your email was not compromised. Everything is back on autopilot. You’ll continue to receive your New York Times as you always have.

If you’d like to vent, we invite you to visit us on our official Twitter account at https://twitter.com/#!/nytimes. We’ll also answer any questions you have about your subscription or any of our other services.

Thanks for your patience and understanding. We value you as a New York Times reader.

Sincerely,

Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
Publisher

— now isn’t that better than the email I did receive?

PS – see the comment below. The email went to non-subscribers, too. What a goof-up.

Leave a Reply

Comments

  1. Great post Jeannette! I don’t subscribe to the New York Times and I got the message too, so it reached beyond subscribers. I think it would also be interesting for the New York Times to communicate how upset people were when they heard they had lost their subscription, similar to Burger King taking away the whopper and filming the reactions.

    • Thanks, Amy. I’ve added a PS to my post about non-readers receiving the email, too. Thanks for the Burger King reference. There are a ton of things the Times could have done to show readers they care about them. But, it’s the Gray Lady, so maybe that’s all we can expect from old-line media forging its way into new media.

  2. Jeannette,

    Yes…the Times could have sent a more empathic email, but my opinion: They should have set up a big team of people to telephone these subscribers. I know that sounds outlandish, but a telephone call goes a LONG way, and I am sure they could pull together enough people to at least make a few phone calls and then send an automated message to people apologizing for their big mistake and asking people to reconsider.

    The email they sent was rushed, not really well thought out, and they forgot that a human being was on the receiving end of the email.

    Great job on bringing this to our attention. As business owners, we need to go over and beyond when we make a mistake!

    Bea

    • Sherryl — yes, the impersonal tone and almost scolding them for dropping their subscriptions is not good customer relations. They could have used the mistake when writing the first email as a way of finding out why they were leaving. Sounds like the legal department might have been involved in writing or editing the copy.

    • Bea — maybe calling everyone wasn’t possible, but certainly injecting a personal tone into their correspondence would have gone a long way to reducing the angst of readers who thought their subscriptions were cancelled. A friend of mine tried to call, then went online to the Times and wasted a lot of time in an unsuccessful effort to find out what was going on with his subscription. Nowhere in the second letter do they apologize for any inconvenience the mistake might have caused — only for the confusion.

  3. Jeannette,
    Your letter is so much better than theirs. Their tone in both emails was impersonal. Even if that first email was going to someone who canceled their subscription, they should at least start out by thanking the person for their past business and instead of banning them from accessing their website and apps, they could extend a courtesy period (maybe three months) to give them time to reconsider. There is so much wrong with the way they handled this. Actually, it gives me hope for small businesses who take the extra steps to connect with their customers on a personal note.

    (It’s good to see that you turned their missed opportunity into an opportunity to write a great post!)

  4. Michael — thanks for reminding us of Mark Zuckerberg’s and Andrew Mason’s letters. We could also point to Warren Buffett, who is famous for his letters to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual reports. When he goofs, he tells the unvarnished truth. His shareholders and the financial world greatly respect him for it.

  5. Your email is definitely far better than the one NYT wrote. But at least they were polite in their mail, which isn’t always the case.

    Honestly think it’s unbelievable that an employee managed to send such an email to 8m subscribers by mistake. Sounds more like a disgruntled person who decided to take revenge for, say, not getting promoted.

    If it was a mistake they really should have a look at their routines to avoid anything like that ever happening again.

    • Catarina — I hadn’t thought about the possibility of a disgruntled employee sending the email. They definitely need tighter controls on their correspondence with subscribers — wonder who approved sending the email? That would be interesting to find out.

  6. A cleverly crafted apology message could have saved them lot of frustrated subscribers and non-subscribers from around the world. Such rare incidents do happen, but defending them deserves careful attention.

    • Thanks, George. The New York Times is in the writing business yet couldn’t come up with copy for a simple email!

  7. I guess I’m in the dark because I didn’t hear about this, but you make an great point. That’s so funny that they were so engaging when they sent out the “don’t cancel your subscription — here are the benefits” only to answer with “ignore what happened earlier”. You’re right that they had the opportunity to be a little self deprecating. Your letter was excellent. They should hire to do public relations, Jeannette.