Tuesday, August 02, 2011

USA Today: Can't Give It Away; Man Sues After Being Charged for It

Look, this is a true fact despite any freelance or other professional associations I might have in the news game. The New York Times, in my opinion, is the only national newspaper that reliably reports its paid circulation figures, and has always done.

Many years ago, the USA Today founder and Gannett newspaper chain chief, a flashy corporate buccaneer named Al Neuharth, rolled the newspaper industry's official circulation auditor, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, into accepting as "paid circulation" copies of a newspaper that are, as a significant portion of the USA Today print run has always been, essentially handed out for free, or deeply discounted in various bulk-sales distribution deals with hotels, airlines and other outlets.

Often the so-called bulk sales arrangement involves a barter deal for advertising space with hotels, airlines and other heavily traveled sources, and no actual money changes hands. USA Today, which counts bulk sales for roughly half of its sales, has always claimed a very large daily circulation, even though bulk sales account for about half of the 1.8 million papers it claims to sell five days a week. I, for one, have never actually purchased a copy in the quarter century that the newspaper has been in existence.

Some hotels have also added a charge for the daily paper (usually USA Today) to the bill, but they almost always remove it when a customer who doesn't want it notices and complains.

For USA Today, big trouble occurred a few years ago when Bill Marriott, the head of the Marriott hotel chain, noticed that USA Todays, distributed for free, were laying outside hotel-room doors untouched. Marriott, famously fussy about neatness in his hotels, had a fit and ordered the USA Today distribution stopped in Marriott hotels -- causing an immediate reduction of over 50,000 in the number of USA Todays being distributed.

"I visit more than 250 hotels a year, and more often than not, I’m stepping over unclaimed newspapers as I walk down the hallway," Bill Marriott said at the time.

Here's a link to a story I did about that in 2009.

No skin off my teeth, man, except that as a career-long newspaperman (who once worked as an editor for a Gannett-owned newspaper for one glorious year in 1979 till the gang at headquarters decided we were spending too much money on quality investigative reporting, and abruptly pulled the plug one day) it annoys me when I see numbers that don't add up.

Anyway, the latest news on the USA Today paper-chase front comes from a California man, who has gone to the trouble of suing Hilton Hotels for charging him 75 cents for a copy of the USA Today newspaper that he did not request, according to a complaint filed last week in federal court in San Francisco. Here's the story in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.

The plaintiff says that when he left his room on March 28 at the Hilton Garden Inn at Sonoma County Airport, he stepped over the familiar copy of USA Today outside his door, ignoring it.

He sued, on principle, his lawyer says, after later noticing a 75-cent charge on his bill. Hilton, citing the pending litigation, has declined to comment.

By the way, my print subscription to the New York Times costs over $500 a year. Meanwhile, my print and online subscription to the Wall Street Journal is about to expire, and I'm going to readily write the check -- for $99 -- to renew it for another year.

Just sayin' ...



ChefNick said...

Anything that includes "today" in its name makes me automatically suspicious. What, "today." Did you publish it today? Did it happen today? What about yesterday? Didn't that influence today? Why didn't you call yourself "USA Yesterday and Today and Most Probably Tomorrow As Well"?

Too long on the masthead? Why don't you put it in a nice faux "Chancelry" New York Timesy typeface? That'll impress the masses.

And what's with that vast, egg-yolk-colored map of the United States on the Weather page? Aside from making me look for the airline's barf bag, what if I'm flying to Japan today? Oh sorry, I remember, USA TODAY.

They'd have better luck printing it in special runs on hotel toilet paper . . . the colors wouldn't seem so garish in comparison after use and more people would be more likely to read it.

paleolith said...

Hey Joe, you should appreciate that USA Today got a journalism award recently. Right up your line, so don't knock them so much Best Investigative Paragraph!

I have to say I'm glad Bill Marriott noticed those rags I've been leaving outside my hotel door for ages.