Houston Chronicle responds to readers' complaints

Houston Chronicle subscribers are mad. Dozens of you have flooded us with emails after our story last month about billing problems. Consumer expert Amy Davis followed up when some of you said you couldn't opt out of the special sections that cost more money.    

Representatives from the Chronicle say customers will notice changes to their bills next month. They say bills will be itemized so customers won't have to guess what they're paying for.

"About 60 years, I've taken the Chronicle," said 85-year-old James McMillan.

"I think print journalism is important," explained George Ann Carmichael. 

McMillan and Carmichael are just two of the dozens of Chronicle customers who emailed Channel 2. They are loyal readers who like the news, but not the bills.

"These bills, they started coming more frequently," explained Carmichael.

"It's not the money," said McMillan. "It's the principle of the thing."

McMillan sent in a check at the beginning of the year to cover the cost of 12 months of papers delivered daily.

"I got 4 billings this year, starting in June; and I thought I had paid for a year," he said.

Carmichael can't figure out what she's paying for.

"Every time I get a bill, it's for a different amount, and it's increased," she told Davis.

Inside the paper, on page A2, in small print, it reads "Prices are subject to change." It also explains that your subscription may include up to 8 premium issues a year. These are special magazines or inserts that cost more money. The Chronicle simply deducts those extra charges out of the money you've already paid or withdraws it from your account if you're on EZ Pay. 

"I don't even want that," said McMillam, of those special inserts. "I just like the old paper I've been getting for years."

But customers like him had no way to know the special sections were what was driving up the cost of their paper because the Chronicle bills are not itemized. When they call the customer service line for more information, call takers are not forthcoming about the extra charges. We called the customer service line, based in the PhilipPines, with McMillan. He asked the call taker to break down the charges on his most recent bill of $50.95.

"Are there any special charges... special sections, in that?" McMillan asked the woman on the other end of the line. 

"No sir," she replied. 

"Pardon?" McMillan said. 

"No sir. You're actually paying for your paper," the woman said.

The call was on speaker. I spoke up and asked the woman how many weeks the $50.95 covered. When she said it was for 11 weeks, I asked if I just divided $50.95 by 11 weeks, was it accurate to say that McMillan was billed $4.63 a week for 11 weeks. It was only then that she admitted $10 of the $50.95 bill was for 2 special sections included in McMillan's paper: one on Oct. 23 and another one he would receive on Nov. 25 at $5 each.

McMillan's wife had already written the Chronicle to opt out of all of the special sections.

"That's no way to do business," said McMillan. "I don't think anybody likes that."

"Should people be able to opt out of all of those premium editions?" Davis asked the Houston Chronicle's Director of marketing Courtney Glover.

"Absolutely," Glover replied. "We have a legal obligation to provide people with all of that information up front and give them an easy way to understand how they can be a part of it or not be part of those programs."

Glover said the Chronicle changed billing systems over the summer. She believes that contributed to the confusion. In late December, she says customers will receive itemized bills that break down what they're paying for. In 2017, the Chronicle will stop charging extra for special magazines and inserts. But Glover stopped short on issuing something else customers like Carmichael and McMillan feel they're due.

"Is it worthy of an apology?" Davis asked her.

"I don't believe it's worthy of an apology," Glover replied.  "I believe that we're providing a great service to Houston. Our content is invaluable and that we shape the future of what's going on here."

There are several more special sections this year you could be charged for if you don't call and opt out: on Nov. 23, Dec. 24 and Texas Sports Nation every Friday. KPRC does have a business relationship with the Houston Chronicle. Channel 2 produces the television version of Texas Sports Nation, which airs Sunday nights.

You can opt out of the remaining special sections and request a refund for the premium issues you did not authorize by calling (713) 362-7211. The hours are Mon-Fri 5:30-5:00 Sat-Sun 7:30-11:00 a.m. The customer service number on your Chronicle bill is answered at a call service in the Phillipines. Some viewers have reported to Channel 2 that they have been more successful opting out and getting a response when they email the Chronicle at callback@chron.com. Ask them to send you an email confirmation that you have opted out.

The words "I'm sorry" can solve a lot of problems. Why is it so hard? This is how the #HoustonChronicle responded to complaints of unfair and alleged deceptive billing. They do say they are making changes.

Posted by KPRC2 Amy Davis on Monday, November 7, 2016

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.