new york timesI had to breathe deeply and compose myself for several minutes before I picked up the receiver and made The Call, but finally summoned the fortitude. Today, after four decades of near-uninterrupted service, I cancelled delivery of The New York Times.  The Internet’s partially to blame, but digital is only part of the reason I fired the Grey Lady.

It didn’t take much consideration to drop my landline. Cable I thought about a tad longer before cutting the cord (all those years in the TV business doubtless had something to do with hanging on).  Fewer bills, reduced customer service hassles, and besides, neither my telco nor MSO delivered anything I wanted but couldn’t access digitally anyway.

It was different with The Times. It was almost atavistic, having grown up in a household with two papers delivered daily. The first thing I did when I got to college was sign up for NYT delivery. Not once has home delivery stopped in four decades (not counting getting the International Herald Tribune – then Times co-owned – during my Euro-years.

The reasons not to stop getting the Times were manifold. The brand. The content. The serendipity of finding stories outside the parameters of what 300 or so RSS feeds deliver. The personal relationship (friends who work there; having had my own byline in those hallowed pages on more than one occasion). The morning ritual. The moral obligation to do one’s part in financially underwriting traditional journalism, particularly as a journalist.

In the end, the Times fell down for me on the last mile, that longtime problem of ecommerce and information providers alike.

You see, in the 17 years I’ve lived at my current address, the Times and I have gone through three or four protracted episodes per year in which the courier leaves the papers in the building lobby rather than distributing them upstairs at our doors. Each time this happens, it results in phone time in which I patiently explain to polite and well-trained customer service reps that if I have to dress and go downstairs to retrieve an ostensibly delivered paper,  I may as well cross the street and purchase it at a lower cost from the corner newsstand.

I know this last-mile issue affects The Wall Street Journal. It’s delivered in Manhattan by the same service responsible for Times home delivery, but with a lobby-drop only policy, doubtless a holdover from the era when its readers worked in offices rather than increasingly at home. In pajamas. Anecdotally, I know dozens of people who no longer get the WSJ delivered because they aren’t willing to dress for the privilege. Why should they? It’s cheaper to access the paper online.

Print journalism has been in freefall for two decades. A tremendous, if overlooked, issue in its decline, isn’t just digital. It’s digital delivery. To retain their most profitable and valuable subscribers, print publications have to go one step beyond in every aspect of customer service. Adopt zero-tolerance rates for missed papers, botched deliveries and the like. I didn’t cancel the Times because I don’t like or don’t want the paper, or because the Web replaced it. I cancelled because of a persistent problem with getting it.

Never mind the money, although with the c. $35 per month I’m saving on Times delivery would more than pay for a Kindle with a digital subscription to the paper “auto-delivered wirelessly when the physical issue hits the newsstand,” i.e. hours before the physical paper does (or does not) land on my doorstep. It’s the experience. The tradition. Curling up with it. Yes, even occasionally clipping it.

Those days are, very sadly, over now because sure, customers will accept subpar customer service. But only when there are no alternatives.