As a 30-year subscriber to The Arlington Advocate, I was surprised to learn in June that the weekly newspaper would stop on July 4 -- surprised because I had paid for a year last November. Town Day logo

I was not alone. Ten Advocate subscribers in Arlington and four Minuteman readers Lexington reported similar stories.

The details about these cases turned surprise to annoyed anger and led me to file a consumer complaint with the state attorney general in late June. Two months later, that complaint has been "resolved" (see how, below).

To be fair, I continue to receive The Advocate, as I was able to persuade the GateHouse rep that there are 52 weeks in a year, not fewer.

How many others have swallowed this bait and switch?

Here's what happened to me and readers who got in touch.

My story

Last Nov. 7, I paid $45 for an annual subscription -- the amount listed for a year on the paper notice received in mid-October. Told in a letter in June that the subscription would end July 4 unless I paid an amount nearing $70 a year, I twice called customer service of GateHouse Media, The Advocate's owner.

I wanted to know: "How could an annual subscription begun last November already be ending?"

Two lengthy exchanges ensued, each with different answers to the question. One rep claimed that I actually signed up for 36 weeks, not a year.

Another said the newspaper had raised its rates last Oct. 29, a claim I had not been told at the time.

I asked for a copy of the invoice I was sent in October 2018, and it was promised, but I have not yet received it.

In a third call to GateHouse subscriptions, in July, a rep relented and agreed to extend my subscription to September. I did not agree with that. I requested the full 52 weeks and was told I'd get the paper until November.

Public's stories

I reached out to the public about this issue and heard nearly identical stories as well as some with other angles, including steeper price increases.

Barbara Costa, a Town Meeting member, wrote in July: "I am flummoxed as well! .... I made a second call just now to so-called Customer Service, and all they could say is I paid my last bill in October and days later they raised their rates. I could [not] even follow their nonsensical wording about why they are now billing me.

"Strangely, I thought I had renewed by phone on July 3, using my VISA, but there’s no record of that transaction (even though they gave me a 6-digit confirmation code) either at VISA or at the Advocate/Gatehouse Media. (They say they have no Business Office, and I was put on hold to speak with a supervisor, but the same guy just came back and gave me the same blather.)

"IN SUM — I can’t stand the way they do business and as of today I’ve cancelled my Advocate subscription ...."

Bill Berkowitz, another meeting member, wrote: "I did renew, reluctantly. On the subscription form, it says I would be getting "up to 52 weeks" for the pretty exorbitant price of $98.

"I did call and ask what "up to 52 weeks" meant, as conceivably it could mean any number from 1 to 52. I was assured it was 52. I remain skeptical."

Eugene Benson, a member of the Redevelopment Board writing as a private citizen, noted in August that his subscription ended on Dec. 13, 2018. "I paid for what I thought was another 52 weeks. "Today I got a notice that my subscription 'is about to expire and is due for renewal on 09/12/2019.' September 12 is three months short the year of papers I paid for ...."

"Also interesting is the greatly increased price of the Advocate. Last year I paid $66 for 52 weeks (the additional $5 paper statement fee was waived because I agreed to receive future statements electronically). This year the price for 52 weeks is $93."

Resident Sarah Bjorkman reported a similar story.

Credit card, price issues

Another resident, who did not want to be identified by name, faced a different wrinkle -- he said his credit-card statement showed he was charged $72, instead of $66, which he said he had authorized on the phone. He called again and talked to a representative and her supervisor. He wrote that neither knew why this had occurred.

He cited a new price increase in July to $86 a year, "and therefore my subscription was shortened to 4/16/2020 (from 7/11/2020).

"I cancelled the subscription ... but I have been sent 1 paper. Their accounting system (I use the term lightly) shows that my remaining balance that I would be refunded is $63.70, a difference of $8.30 from what I paid. (Looks to me like I'm paying $8.30 for 1 paper).

"When I asked for details about how that was number was arrived at, the explanation was that it was 'because of the price increase' and the change in subscription length. I could get no more detail than that, with the person continuing to claim that was the explanation ....

"I kept pointing out to the supervisor that I was paying $8.30 for a single paper, but was repeatedly given the above explanation, as if that explained it fully.

"The supervisor said she would send a note to billing to refund my full $72, but could not guarantee that is what they will do. I will receive the refund check in 3-4 weeks from now," as of July 11. 

On Aug. 28, he wrote that he ultimately received the full amount. Told that it would be a check, he received a credit-card refund, but it was was short by $1.65.. He complained, and a $1.65 credit showed up on his next statement.

Financial issues

Resident Kevin Hazel described his plight in June, which parallels mine, but he added a key point: "Eventually, a supervisor called me back, and at first she toed the company line, saying the paper was in financial difficulty, and reserved the right to raise the price even before our subscription expired."

In the end, he reached "a relatively satisfactory resolution, as they did end up allowing the original subscription to run its course through mid-August; and I've now renewed for a shorter period."

Merger

Since all of this subscription brouhaha began, GateHouse, owned by hedge fund manager New Media Investment Groupmerged in August with Gannett. The combination would create a nationwide media company with more than 260 daily news operations, potentially the largest online audience of any American news provider.

Four complaints from readers of the Lexington Minuteman, also owned by GateHouse, reflected experiences in Arlington. One wrote: "I want to support them- but it’s unethical to break the contract set up with a yearly subscription."

As to my consumer complaint filed with the attorney general in June, it was referred in July to Laura Nichols of the Cambridge Consumer Council. She said she reached GateHouse on Aug. 2 and was told to call the Advocate's local subscription service (which is in Florida). She has been calling since then. In one case, she was referred to WickedLocal news director, who could not help her. She will keep trying.

On Aug. 28, Nichols called to say that my complaint had been "resolved." How? She said she reached a local GateHouse corporate rep, who provided yet another account of my subscription. Nichols was told that my subscription last year had expired at the end of October 2018, something no one had told me before, and after that, rates went up. Nichols was told that my Nov. 7 payment was "late." Oh.

My Advocate will keep coming until Oct. 31, when I will have to decide whether its ever-thinning gruel is worth a price increase.


This consumer report, a mix of news and opinion, was published Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.