Why falling customer service standards present a ripe opportunity for newsrooms

Essential reading for publishers and media entrepreneurs who want to get ahead of the competition.

Hey y’all! Anita here. I’ve been thinking a lot about customer service lately, after a series of bad experiences my fiancé and I recently had with delivery companies. Dropping off packages at the wrong address, being unresponsive to customer communications, failing to take responsibility for errors — it’s as if the idea of “service” has become an inconvenient afterthought at best and a form of obstruction at worst for many businesses these days 📞

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My outsider’s approach

The irony is that customer service can be a big differentiator when it comes to standing out from the competition, particularly for small, independent businesses — media outlets included. That’s the overarching takeaway from a newly published Strategy Study I led for the American Press Institute, titled “How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences.”

No longer exclusively the realm of retailers, customer service must become a bigger focus for journalism industries worldwide, especially now that consumer revenue models like subscription and membership are providing newsrooms with more pathways to financial sustainability beyond advertising. Much like how effective audience engagement draws news consumers into an outlet’s reporting and editorial processes, good customer service helps build trust between publisher and subscriber or donor. At the end of the day, whether you’re talking editorial or biz, it all comes down to relationships. Providing quality customer service is one way of building trust and getting to know — not to mention better serve — your readers, listeners and viewers.

For this study, I conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen newsroom leaders in the U.S. about their successes and barriers when it comes to improving customer service. Here are some highlights and excerpts:

  • Chapter 2 explains why it’s essential to break down silos and integrate departments for better, more streamlined communication.

    • To make customer service a top priority for everyone at The Keene Sentinel, a community paper in Keene, N.H., president and COO Terrence Williams decided to create a guide that includes best practices and tips from employees who are effective with customers. “We pulled these folks together and said, ‘Okay, so when you think about how you treat your customers and how you like to be treated, what is your mindset?’” Williams explained. “‘What are the things that we need to make sure that we build into this guide, and then offer training to the rest of the company?’”

  • Chapter 3 takes a close look at how to optimize online processes, like purchasing or canceling a subscription, by making them as frictionless as possible.

    • Curtis Huber, The Seattle Times’ senior director of circulation and audience revenue, describes the daily paper’s checkout experience as “the gold standard” because customers only have to fill in five or six fields, depending on their subscription preference. To achieve this, the paper removed delivery-address and phone-number fields for digital-only customers. It also added options for social logins, so customers don’t have to create usernames or passwords, and instead can log in using their Facebook, Google or other accounts.

  • Chapter 4 shows how to invest in hands-on approaches to service, and provides successful examples.

    • To retain its primary audience of older readers and to cut printing costs, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette leadership team came up with an innovative, high-touch solution: Replace most of its home delivery of print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads. This move, spearheaded by publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., ended up being the state paper’s saving grace during COVID-19, a time when many local papers experienced major financial losses. “We were going to lose money this year. We made money this year,” circulation director Larry Graham said of 2020. “We turned it around.”

  • Chapter 5 outlines how a leadership team should take strategic risks and test out creative customer service strategies.

    • After analyzing the effectiveness of its call centre in South America, The Chicago Sun-Times’ executive team quickly became aware that subscribers were having a difficult time communicating with these offshore customer service reps, and that the company wasn’t getting what it was paying for. When assessing potential replacements, CEO Nykia Wright decided to bypass major brands and instead contracted the services of an unproven startup run by a twenty-something. This risk-taking mindset is precisely what helped snatch the Sun-Times “from the jaws of extinction,” said Wright.

My insider’s approach

CBC Manitoba recently contracted me to consult on the development of a new 15-member community advisory board to better inform the way its journalists cover the province, and reflect the communities it serves. “While the board won't have editorial control over individual stories on radio, TV or online, it is being set up to help capture the broad range of lived experiences in the province, including voices that are underrepresented in mainstream media,” according to the station’s launch announcement

I’ll be working closely with community engagement producer Lindsay MacKenzie on a framework that will help CBC Manitoba embed the advisory board into its newsroom’s workflows, and develop collaborative community-centred journalism projects.

It’s an exciting new pilot for CBC that, if successful, could provide a template for the public broadcaster’s other stations across Canada. Given CBC’s recent public struggles around equity and representation, this is a step in the right direction, and I feel fortunate to be part of a potentially groundbreaking initiative for Canadian journalism.

On the biz side of media, I’m now writing a new column for Global News, called “Outside the 9 to 5,” which launched earlier this month. Twice a month, I’ll look at one aspect of how young Canadians between the ages of 18 and 40 are navigating modern #worklife. Company culture, pay, benefits, hours, organizational structures, office settings, what it means to be successful — everything is changing, so all of it is on the table.

Norms have been upended in a post-pandemic world, so my goal is to help Canadians navigate and define a new status quo for our professional lives. “Outside the 9 to 5” isn’t focused on the journalism industry, but some of the most toxic environments I’ve ever worked in have been in Canadian media, so I’ll definitely be referencing first-hand professional experiences in order for us to learn from them.

Check out my debut column, which explores how gen Zs and millennials are challenging the notion of work-life “balance” in favour of work-life “integration.” Then listen to me discuss this topic with Charles Adler on a recent episode of Charles Adler Tonight.


Shout-outs

Thanks to David Grant, program manager of the Facebook Journalism Project, for shouting out my newsletter about meme journalism from earlier this month!


In my community

  • The Online News Association, for which I serve as a board member, is hosting its annual conference from June 22 to 25. Register for #ONA21, which will be virtual again this year. Then submit your best work for the 2021 Online Journalism Awards

  • Speaking of awards, congrats to this year’s finalists of the sixth annual Digital Publishing Awards! I was privileged to serve on the 2021 jury for Best Editorial Newsletter, and was delighted to see all the innovation in this space in Canada.

  • This Asian Heritage Month, I hosted a Toronto Public Library panel titled “Asian-Canadian Representation in the Media,” featuring stellar panellists, CBC’s Kenny Yum, Khabardaar Podcast’s Aparita Bhandari and Living Hyphen’s Justine Abigail Yu. Our goal was to unpack and discuss Asian-Canadian identity with nuance, so hopefully we achieved that.

  • Finally, check out this Canadaland analysis, headlined “Digital Startups Are Breathing Life into Canadian Journalism,” for which I was interviewed.


Cool stuff I like

  • BIPOC Writers Connect is a free mentorship conference where Black, Indigenous and racialized emerging writers can connect with industry leaders and get their work evaluated by a professionally published author. Apply to attend by July 9. 

  • Neighbours on my street recently invited me to join a book club focused on Indigenous authors, and we just finished reading the inimitable Thomas King’s laugh-out-loud 2020 novel, Indians On Vacation. King seamlessly weaves together hard truths with gallows humour in a way that educates, entertains and evokes empathy in his readers.

  • I highly recommend watching Plan B, a hilarious new coming-of-age comedy movie in which two best friends have 24 hours to track down a Plan B pill after one of them has a regrettable first sexual encounter. Not since 2019’s groundbreaking Booksmart have I seen such a fresh, female-focused take on the high school experience. 

  • Consider donating to Building Roots, a grassroots social venture dedicated to increasing access to food in Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. I came across the group after meeting one of its partners, Darcy Higgins, through our mutual friend Julia.


Last thought

🎵 You are a racist, sexist boy / And you have racist, sexist joys / We rebuild what you destroy 🎵

- The Linda Lindas


How you can support The Other Wave

My professional mission has always been to support the global movement towards more thoughtful, impactful news coverage, and all the ways that manifests. If The Other Wave gets you to think even a little differently about journalism, especially in Canada, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do. And if TOW gets you to take action and support Canadian media outlets — especially ones that strive to be innovative and inclusive — I will have exceeded my expectations.

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