Open Letter to San Diego U-T on Ad Circulars – and Their Response

by on June 3, 2015 · 1 comment

in Culture, Environment, Media, Ocean Beach, Organizing

U-T ad circ dump OBEditor: Here below is the letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune from Mary Tolena – one of our own OB activists on the newspaper’s ad circulars – the subject of the last OB Town Council meeting. Mary is writing to Robert York and Mr. Ficarra, the paper’s reps at the meeting; below Mary’s letter is York’s response. Mary gave the Town Council a presentation on her findings about the throw-aways.


Dear Mr. York and Mr. Ficarra: 

First, I sincerely thank you both for attending the Ocean Beach Town Council meeting last Wednesday.  It meant a lot to all of us that such high-level representatives of the U-T were there.

In fact, after listening to you at the meeting, I have a lot of optimism about the future of the U-T in San Diego.  I came away believing that the U-T of today is not the entity we were fighting when we started this Stop The Litter campaign in early April.

I really got the sense that you both want to renew the U-T’s function as a key to civic awareness, communication, and collaboration.  And that is a great relief.

I was even more delighted when I looked out my window today and saw a man and his son/grandson/nephew walking our sidewalks, checking addresses on a clipboard, and making sure the circulars were thrown on driveways and front walks — not sidewalks.

That’s an impressive amount of change in less than two days’ time.  I appreciate how you made this issue top on your list this week, as do the OBecians who’ve been tracking the story.

More Win-Win Ahead? 

I spent many years in manufacturing and operations management, where the whole point is to get better and more efficient at applying resources to create what really matters to customers.  It is from that point of view that I look at community functioning, as well.  Waste of any kind makes me crazy, because it is usually so unnecessary, and often not hard to fix.

Through that lens, reflecting on what was said at Wednesday’s meeting and the changes we saw in today’s delivery, I offer the following ideas for you to consider.

1.  Turn the plastic bag problem into a way to reach out

You heard on Wednesday how reviled the plastic bags are.  They’re also ugly, and obscure your content.  It’s really hard to care or be curious about a bunch of paper in a flimsy plastic bag.  For many, many people, they go straight to the trash.

Idea:  Replace the plastic bag with a paper band wrapper (~2” wide), which becomes prime messaging space.  Greet people as they pick up the circular.  Reintroduce yourself to the community.  Highlight “What’s Inside.”

2.  Lower costs and improve advertiser value through an effective opt-out program

I don’t doubt that a bigger percentage of people read the ad circulars than the 4% I reported in my survey.  However, it’s also clear that a significant percentage of people don’t want these, and will never look at them.  That’s waste.

I also understand how there’s no practical path to a full Opt-In program from where you are today.  But –

What if you could reduce your costs significantly while building readership, and delivering even more engaged eyeballs to your advertisers?

You can — by creating an effective opt-out process that engages, empowers, and draws in those opt-out customers.  Sounds a lot better than making them mad, doesn’t it?

Here’s how:

  • Make it easy for people to opt out with a message on the band wrapper (e.g. “Give us your feedback”), sending them to your website, where…
  • … the pages of your opt-out process include messages about the “New U-T,” subscription offers, advertising, content teasers, etc.

(Note: do NOT require an email to opt-out — that would make people angry.  Address only, and maybe last name.  However, you could certainly include an optional email signup to receive coupons by email.)

With this kind of approach, the U-T gets:

  • Significant savings on its print run
  • A winnowed, higher-quality distribution list, with the admin work done by the people
  • Additional customer engagements online
  • Improved community relations
  • Another way to show that the “new U-T” is something we want to get to know.
  • There may even be cost-savings opportunities in the delivery process, with focus on creating a systematic way for deliverers to receive and easily use up-to-date opt-out information.

Once again, I thank you both for appearing at the May Ocean Beach Town Council meeting and listening to our concerns.  I have faith that you can make improvements in the ad circular program that solve the litter issue permanently, and create more value for the U-T and your advertisers at the same time.

I sincerely want to see the Union-Tribune succeed at renewing itself as a balanced and constructive community force, and as I said, listening to you gave me great hope.  Count me among your new supporters.  In fact, I just signed up for a digital subscription.


Mary Tolena

  —————————- The Response by Robert York ——————————


Thanks for your note. We have been a bit distracted over the past 48 hours with some changes we are bringing to our teams – my apologies for the tardy reply.

Thanks to our delivery partners, were able to move quickly and get walking teams to deliver to many parts of OB and the nearby areas. We are looking to increase that where it makes sense over the coming weeks and your feedback is invaluable.

We are in the process of replacing the bags with some sort of simple fastener that will do the job of keeping the product neatly packaged during delivery. We are exploring a range of paper and rubber band options.

We have delivered a very clear message to the leaders of our distribution partner that opt-out is not a suggestion or a guideline – it’s a business rule that must be followed. They are onboard and I need to hear about any missteps on our part. Addresses are key for me to fix.

As for your suggestion about moving to a fully opt-in model, that’s one that will take a bit more calculation and could be challenging for a variety of reasons – one of which is – our clients and readers value e program as it’s currently constructed. I’d like to continue proceeding with the goals of providing industry-leading effective and efficient delivery before heading down that path.

As I said in the meeting, nothing is off the table but let’s take this in steps. I’ve been part of this company since the mid-90’s and will see this through.

Finally, as I mentioned in the meeting, please feel free to have your 92107 community leaders who have programs they need publicized reach out to me and we can discuss delivery of some inserts to spread the word. Given that Mark’s and my new favorite place in San Diego is OB (for the free organic zucchinis every fourth Wednesday) we’d be happy to show that we’re in this together.


Robert York | Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jean June 3, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Wow – maybe with this sort of attention to the issue, the UT itself will some day be a paper worth reading (as the LA Times already is).


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