An open letter to David Zeeck

Posted by Ken Campbell February 17, 2014 0 Comment 4415 views

David Zeeck is the Publisher of the Tacoma News Tribune. His piece in Sunday’s issue is a defense of the ad-bombing that the TNT is now doing all over its circulation area, delivering unwanted litter to Tacoma’s streets, gutters and the waters of Puget Sound. I couldn’t just let his column lie there unanswered. A copy of this reply was emailed to him this morning.

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Dear Mr. Zeeck,

This letter is in response to your “Page Two” remarks in yesterday’s paper. I’ve read it a half-dozen times and I think the only way to address the things you wrote is to take them in order. (I hope you haven’t stopped reading this already. In case you’re still here, let’s get started.)

In our view, direct mail has become somewhat less efficient over time for a couple of big reasons. One is that it can be unnecessarily wasteful. With direct mail we can’t know which households want it and which ignore it. Second, as postal rates constantly rise, it’s increasingly expensive for us and for advertisers.

The current program, in which the mid-week advertiser is deposited on curbs, in gutters, vacant lots, etc. is the definition of unnecessary wastefulness. The process also adds the terms environmentally irresponsible, aesthetically challenged, and ecologically tone-deaf to the discussion. You still don’t really know which households do or do not want what you are putting out, and that honestly doesn’t seem to be part of the calculus anyway.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Delivery via the new weekly paper can help advertisers hedge against rising direct mail costs because we’re a lot more efficient than the Postal Service. And we weed out readers who truly don’t want the product by inviting them to opt out. If they don’t want it delivered to their house, we’ll stop delivery.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this paragraph: First of all, I’m not sure how you measure efficiency, but when the ads were being mailed, I do not recall seeing them in our streets. Inviting people to opt out of something like this strikes me as akin to continually smacking a person in the face and telling him you’ll stop if he asks you to. Why should you think you should get credit for ceasing to do something that you never should have started doing in the first place? The other glaring problem with this half-true “solution” you offer is that I don’t just want the ad insert to stop coming to my house, I want to stop it from lying all around my neighborhood. And my friend’s neighborhoods.

The weekly paper… can be more selectively delivered. As a bonus we hope to create 40 to 50 new jobs in this endeavor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain with the “selectively delivered.” It’s something that sounds good and may read well on paper, but I assure you that there is nothing selective about what is happening now. As to the new jobs you mention, there’s a basic logical flaw in your point: If you’re saving so much money by not mailing these ads, that is money that is not going to these new employees. Are these jobs above minimum-wage? Do they have benefits? And will some of the positions be for employees who will clean the streets after a scheduled delivery?

Clear bags are supposed to arrive before next week’s delivery… we’ll make the opt-out more obvious, and we’re pressing carriers to avoid delivery where papers are stacking up. We’ll also stop delivery to a vacant house if a neighbor alerts us.

“Clear bags?” Really? Do you not see any irony in this? I don’t know that I can adequately explain that there is no difference in the problem simply by changing the color of the bags. (Obviously, the intent of the change is to make the problem less visible, and not to actually solve it.) I have more to say about the opt-out process in a minute, but the stopping of delivery to vacant houses should not be something that is an anonymous “neighbor’s” responsibility. Until you put that neighbor on the payroll, he is under no obligation to call you and there should be no expectation that he will do so. He is undoubtedly busy enough without looking to do the TNT’s job too.

A couple of concerns have been raised — about unwanted papers clogging storm drains or washing down storm sewers and into Puget Sound — that aren’t grounded in fact.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Selective truth here. These concerns are grounded in fact and it is facts like these about which your paper should be raising awareness. Is that what you want the TNT to be known for? “Some of the facts, part of the time.” We’re not talking about solids entering the waste stream; this is nothing more than a straw man holding a red herring. By the time the shredded paper goes into the drain, it is mush, perfect for clogging and disabling those filters and sumps you talk about. And the real issue is the plastic. Leaving aside that the plastic baggies don’t even keep the contents dry for any appreciable amount of time, they will degrade before they enter the wastewater system. They are torn, pecked at by birds and other animals, and photo-degraded into smaller and smaller pieces but they never go away. Filmed plastic – which is what bags (of any color) are made of – is not commonly recycled and plastics in the marine environment are a large and growing problem. Again, as with the case of the neighbor above, you have made the proper disposal of your unsolicited product someone else’s responsibility. This time it’s the city, which is to say, the taxpayer.

I notice you didn’t use the “stormwater expert’s” name. That makes this part of the piece more difficult to fact-check. Not impossible, just more difficult. With today being a holiday, I may wait until Tuesday to call, but I will call. Meanwhile, here’s what the City of Tacoma web site says: “The City of Tacoma has a newly issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Municipal Stormwater permit, which regulates the discharge of stormwater runoff to the City’s separate storm sewer, which drains directly to local waterways. In that water, that is untreated, unfiltered and is already contaminated with oil, industrial discharges and worse, you have now added elements of your own product, and it will persist for years. Many years. To say that newspapers aren’t clogging storm drains is misleading at best.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some have labeled the product litter.

It is.

It’s clearly a wanted product by most. The phone number to stop delivery is printed on the front cover of every insert jacket. And after five weeks, the opt-out rate averages less than 0.4 of 1 percent.

I picked up about 50 of your packages yesterday morning in a 20-25 minute walk in the north end. None were taken from private property; all were in the road or on the sidewalk, in the gutters or in vacant lots. If these items really had value, as you say, they would not be lying around this way. I will go out again today and I’m pretty sure I’ll pick up another 50. The opt-out process is difficult and clunky by design and to claim otherwise only damages your credibility further. If these ads and coupons are so valuable and “clearly wanted,” I suggest you do an opt-in program. It would not take long to speculate on the response you would get to that.

I do understand. Newspapers are on tough times in terms of selling news, so you have to sell what you can. But for you to hide behind euphemistic language and the privileged mantle of the press is no way to do business long-term. Mark Twain said that, “A half-truth is the moOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAst cowardly of lies.” When I was in the military we said, “Don’t piss down my neck and tell me it’s raining.” (Mark Twain said it better.) But no matter how it is said, you should be aware that people all over Tacoma are saying something like it every time they see one of these bundles.

Thank you for reading this. I hope I did not come off as disrespectful or shrill; to offend is not my intent. I know you have a job to do and everybody has a boss. I get that. I support the daily newspaper and I will be sad if and when it is gone. I am a subscriber (online version) and I have written feature articles for the TNT on several different occasions. That said, I will not give up on this and I am only one of what is getting to be a large and considerably disgruntled group. Despite the length of this response, I do believe in dialog rather than diatribes and if you still want to chat on the phone, I would be honored. I look forward to speaking with you and I hope your day is a good one.

Ken Campbell


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