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Star Tribune called out for siccing debt collectors on ex-subscribers

The Star Tribune repeatedly warns subscribers their deal will automatically renew, and stand by that as a standard news industry practice.

The Star Tribune repeatedly warns subscribers their deal will automatically renew, and stand by that as a standard news industry practice. Google Street

The Minneapolis Star Tribune is often written up in national media as a bright spot in the print journalism business.

Here's Poynter asking why the Star Tribune, a "widely celebrated fast horse" in the news industry, is able to "outperform the pack of metros." Short answer: because it's good, and readers are still willing to pay for it.

On occasion, though, they don't know they're paying for it. Not until they get hit up by a debt collection agency. 

The scenario was highlighted earlier this week by independent journalist Tony Webster, who'd been making a pointed criticism about the Star Tribune's website when he took an "and-another-thing!" turn, instead focusing on the paper's treatment of paying customers.

Without looking too hard, Webster was able to find numerous Yelp reviews of people who said they believed their subscriptions had been canceled or run out... only to learn they were still not only still on the hook, but now on the call list of a third-party debt collector.

One Yelp-er's complaint was dated to Tuesday this week.

Webster says he went through the same thing himself, when the paper started delivering a print edition he wasn't asking for. Only with a "certified letter to their collection agency" could he bring the situation to an end.

Two other Twitter users chimed in on Webster's thread to say they or someone they knew had a similar experience, and there are plenty more where that came from on the newspaper's Better Business Bureau page. 

One tells of a man who is "93 years old and did not understand" that his subscription would be automatically renewed. "STOP the collection attempts," the complainant demands. A response from a Star Tribune employee says while they are "mindful of [the subscriber's] age," the newspaper had repeatedly warned the man his subscription would continue unless he actively took steps to stop service.

The matter was sent to a collections agency "only after attempting multiple means to communicate on the past due amount," the employee writes.

There are a litany of other such complaints-and-response (though few make mention of the subject's advanced age), with company employees routinely telling customers (or ex-customers) they had been informed of their subscription's auto-renewal on repeat occasions. 

"We do occasionally get complaints like this," Arden Dickey, Star Tribune vice president of circulation, writes in an email to City Pages, which is owned by the Star Tribune Media Company.

Automatic subscription renewals are standard industry practice used by "every newspaper in the country, and they all have for as long as I can remember," says Dickey, who's been in newspapers for 47 years, the last five of them in Minneapolis.

New Strib customers are told up-front that their services will continue past the end date of their subscription unless they call to explicitly cancel, and that they, the customer, are  "responsible for any moneys owed beyond the end of this term." Dickey says they're reminded of this "three weeks before the account expires," and again 10 days after, in communications with "very large print" stating the terms. 

If the person's not paying or responding, the account is terminated 90 days after the original subscription end date. And if the paper doesn't get paid for these surprise deliveries? Yes, they're going to be hearing from someone about it.

"Several months after that final bill goes out, if we have not heard back from the former subscriber, that amount owed is turned over to a collection agency which helps us collect," Dickey writes. "We never report any of this monies owed to any credit agency, so the person’s credit score would never be affected by this."

Nor, it seems, is the company's Better Business Bureau rating, which currently sits at an A+, thanks largely to how consistently responsive employees are when a complaint arises -- even when they're not quite ready to forgive an ex-subscriber's debt. 

The paper's reputation is still sterling, too, almost wholly unblemished by these customer frustrations. By and large, people are still happy with what the Star Tribune's sending them. The stuff on the doorstep, anyway. Some are less pleased with what is sometimes arriving in the mailbox.