Saturday, 9 August 2008

How is the IHT delivered?

Regarding my previous post on the accident involving an IHT delivery person in Spain, a Think! reader wrote to me saying that "one strong point in favor of digital delivery of content: Nobody ever gets hurt."

That's true, and what the accident rate worldwide is for the extensive numbers of people delivering the IHT each morning, I don't know, and I doubt the IHT does either, as all hand-delivery operations are contracted out to local hand-delivery companies.

Hence any problem with delivery is passed from Reader in Country X to IHT Customer Service in HK, then by them to the hand-delivery company, then to the route manager and then to the individual driver, and then back again by the same route.

This may sound inefficient but in the days of email, pretty easy. Email also demands instant response and a paper trail. Before it was all un-noted phone calls and faxes and a shambles.

Pre-1997 many people complained directly to the IHT's local subcontractors:

a) who obviously didn't tell the IHT when they screwed up and ;
b) meant the IHT had no idea of its delivery failure/complaint rate per 1,000 copies delivered
c) and meant the IHT was paying these hand-delivery companies for copies not delivered.

In some countries it was an absolute disaster zone until someone got some grip on the situation.

1997, when the subs operation was overhauled, saw the highest subscription growth in decades and I don't think that annual growth figure has been surpassed since. If I remember rightly it was about 10% up on the previous year, which just goes to show how much slack there is within a badly run subscription operation, either marketing or customer service or both.

I wonder if anyone has the complaints per thousand figure to hand at the IHT?

They certainly do at the NYT and most American newspapers. Indeed in the days of declining subscriptions and increased prices, getting the paper delivered as promised is critical to retention. Otherwise people give up and go to the Internet.

The Think! reader and IHT subcriber in Spain, who tipped me off to the crash, had this to say:

"Driving today --at least to me--seems almost as perilous as in those faraway days when the Herald--in its first steps towards global expansion--would send cars from Paris to Deauville and other French provinces for early morning delivery. As far as I'm concerned the age of the motor vehicle (so dear to James Gordon Bennett) has passed. Automobiles clog up our cities, damage our planet, our health, have taken us to war... But that's another story."

He also asked if I knew what different forms of transportation are used to deliver the IHT from its print sites worldwide?
"Shouldnt an increased use of rail be encouraged?" he asks.

I'll try and get a more considered response from the IHT traffic manager in Paris on this one, who's probably on holiday in August, a great guy called John (an American) who has been with the IHT in Paris for years and who would know more about this subject than anyone.

But very briefly: when the price of transmission to remote print sites crashed in the 1990s and becomes cheaper every year, the number of print sites worldwide exploded, meaning that most major capital cities have a print site nearby. But certainly before this, there was a much heavier reliance on planes - and perhaps trains.

From the print site, where the paper comes off the presses in the early hours of the morning, the paper is then sent by cars, in practically all cases, some planes (e.g the Canaries in Spain), to the various cities where the IHT offers hand delivery. At a pick-up point, local drivers with their own cars then pick up their route packages and do the deliveries. Problems usually occur when a new route driver is taken on or when a relief driver is covering for holidays or sickness.

Given that in most cases the delivery is taking place before 0700 am the roads are relatively empty and don't contribute to much congestion. I really can't see how it would be possible to economically distribute the IHT in cities in a timely manner without using cars, although in some larger cities some routes are taken by people on motorbikes or scooters.

But the main carbon footprint of distribution would be planes, and this has largely being removed by transmission to what is now a staggering number of print sites (I can't remember the current amount off the top of my head, but look on your IHT and you can see where the paper is printed, and the other cities where the paper has print sites: bottom of page 2 if memory serves me?)

That being said, the IHT is available in over 181 countries and territories, not always on Day A, but mostly. That is a hell of an achievement and has to be one of the best distribution systems of any product anywhere in the world. Why the guy who co-ordinates this vast global operation involving print sites down to route drivers isn't the highest paid guy at the IHT is beyond me.

I should add that some countries have special late delivery postal systems specificaly for newspapers so that they can arrive on Day A. France is a good example: I live in the middle of nowhere, and my IHT arrives at exactly 13.00hrs, almost without fail.

If it doesn't arrive, it's not down, in my particular case, to my local 'facteur' Gilles (how he always hits my house at 13.00 on the dot is one of life's remaining mysteries) but due to the fact that the paper was printed late, and therefore missed the deadline to go into the newspaper postal delivery.

Late printing can be a result of a cock-up at the IHT in Paris, or late breaking news when they just feel they have to hold the presses.

Of course, you can have an unreliable postman near you, and there is NOTHING the IHT can do about this.

The IHT's traffic manager is a rather reserved man, and I doubt many global IHT employees even know his name.

The man is a genius, has probably the single most challenging job of any IHT employee, is an intellect and charming, so I'll write to him and ask for more info on the use of trains as part of the IHT's delivery operation.

One nice anecdote: the NYT once sent some McKinsey management consultants to work out how to improve the IHT's performance. It took them months to work out how the IHT even functioned, then came up with some extremely mundane recommendations, all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars: always the danger of using outside, non-industry specialist consultants.

One young MBA buck was sitting in John's office, trying to work out how the hell he got the paper to so many people on Day A, and how to do it more efficiently, and asked John, who had a a large map of Europe on his office wall, where exactly in Germany Luxembourg was. (Cars actually go from the Belgium print site to Luxembourg).

John smiled politely, explained that Luxembourg was a country, not a city in Germany, and surprise surprise, McKinsey didn't come up with any distribution ideas.

That level of Manhattan brilliance was reflected throughout their hundred page report of tosh.
International Herald Tribune
New York Times

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