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'Men from Mars' blamed for Boston Globe circulation shambles

If there is a major difference between British papers and US newspapers it lies in the importance of  home delivery – as the Boston Globe is  learning painfully after switching its home delivery partner – and receiving  a tidal wave of complaints from up  to ten per cent of its readers who did not get their paper.

The US direct-to-the-reader system normally beats the British system hands down. 

John Murray, of the Newspaper Association of America, told The Drum that the largest part of paid-for circulation in the States is the 81 per cent of papers that are home-delivered.

Even more impressive, that figure is up 56 per cent in the last five years, said Mr Murray. And these subscribers tend to be “upscale” who attach a greater value to loyalty, a great bonus  for advertisers.

So you can  see why  the Globe – circulation 205,000 on Sunday – summoned executives and managers of their new distribution partner ACI to a meeting Sunday to discuss the widespread delivery failures last weekend.

But, the Globe itself reported, the day ended with “finger pointing and no clarity about when all home subscribers could once again count on getting their newspapers”.

Behind disruptions affecting up to 10 per cent of daily subscribers are two basic problems, both sides said. ACI Media Group, which took over home delivery in Greater Boston, has yet to hire enough drivers to cover every route. And many of ACI’s new delivery routes lack any logical sequence, leaving drivers crisscrossing communities and making repeated trips to the same neighborhoods.

Last Sunday, scores of Globe employees from throughout the company voluntarily fanned out to distribution centers after midnight, taking over many of the 150 routes that had no drivers, delivering papers until late Sunday afternoon.

 Well-known Globe columnist Kevin Cullen was one of those journalists who turned  the clock back to deliver newspapers.

“When the call went out Saturday for volunteers to deliver the Sunday Globe, a wave of nostalgia washed over me,” he reported in print, going back to the days when he had done the job as a 12-year-old.

It turns out he wrote that the Globe had hired a company “from, I believe, Mars to take over the home delivery operation and it has been a fiasco. So those of us who produce the newspaper were prevailed upon to deliver it”.

They gave Cullen and two women helpers 273 papers and a delivery route “that appeared to have been prepared by someone under the influence of methamphetamine. The route wasn’t circuitous. It was circus. If you handed an Etch-a-Sketch to a really drunk guy and told him to turn the knobs, that’s what our route would look like.

“One of the women had the foresight to bring a flashlight along, “which is pretty handy when you’re stumbling up a darkened driveway at 3 in the morning,” said Cullen. We took turns using the flashlight to find the house numbers, some of which weren’t there, others of which were covered by wreaths and assorted seasonal decorations.

“There is no question that if we had meandered around sections of Texas and Florida the way we did the yards in Boston early Sunday morning, we would have been shot dead.”

Cullen said all those hours in the car and furtive creeps up pitch-black driveways “gave us perspective and appreciation, both for the people who deliver our newspaper and those who read it. 

“Whatever they pay the delivery people, it’s not enough, and it’s more than a little depressing to think this debacle has been brought about by a desire to pay them even less. Whatever I’ve tipped delivery people in the past wasn’t enough."

Despite the effort, 3,000 to 4,000 of the roughly 205,000 Sunday Globes scheduled for home delivery did not reach their destinations, ACI executives said.

ACI officials say they are aggressively recruiting new drivers with incentive programs, but could not say when they will have enough to ensure every paper is delivered.

“I wish I could answer that question,” ACI’s president and chief operating officer, Jack Klunder, a former circulation executive at the Los Angeles Times, said in an interview. “I just can’t say. I think it’s going to improve each week.” 

He said in four to six months service will be as good as before the change, and then will continue to improve.

Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan said the newspaper undertook the switch from Publishers Circulation Fulfillment to ACI primarily in an effort to improve service and reduce the number of delivery cancellations due to service complaints. ACI also brings a “material” cost savings, he said, which Globe owner John Henry had intended to put back into the operation.

Sheehan, in two interviews, acknowledged ACI warned of disruptions, but not of the level of vast failure Globe subscribers are experiencing.

“Ten percent of our people not getting papers?” Sheehan said. “That was never communicated to us. That goes far beyond any reasonable definition of disruption.”

Sheehan and other executives suggested in an interview they would not have gone ahead with the change had they known what a mess it would be.

Globe workers at a Newton distribution center raised doubts about the assertion that ACI had hired roughly 475 of more than 530 needed drivers. Many doubted that savings from the new delivery contract would outweigh canceled subscriptions and ill will arising from the delivery delays. All agreed that the situation was untenable.

“In some ways our solidarity all-nighter was fun and bonding, and gratefully received by many subscribers,” said reporter Sacha Pfeiffer. “But I think most of us came away from the night shocked by how dire this problem seems to be, how long it will likely take to fix it, and how ill-equipped anyone at the distributor seems to be to improve the situation.”

“And rather than be upset by all the complaints by longtime subscribers about abysmal service, it was actually heartening to realize how much so many people look forward to their Globe every morning. The least we owe them is getting the paper to them promptly. It’s on us. It’s all on us. “

ACI officials say they are aggressively recruiting new drivers with incentive programmess, but could not say when they will have enough to ensure every paper is delivered.

” ACI’s president and chief operating officer, Jack Klunder, a former circulation executive at the Los Angeles Times, said in an interview. that  in four to six months service will be as good as before the change, and then will continue to improve.

Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan said the newspaper undertook the switch from Publishers Circulation Fulfillment to ACI primarily in an effort to improve service and reduce the number of delivery cancellations due to service complaints.

ACI also bring a “material” cost savings, he said, which Globe owner John Henry, owner of the Red Sox and Liverpool football club had intended to put back into the operation.

Sheehan, in two interviews, acknowledged ACI warned of disruptions, but not of the level of vast failure Globe subscribers are experiencing.

Sheehan and other executives suggested in an interview they would not have gone ahead with the change had they known what a mess it would be.

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