Monday, July 15, 2013 -- My Cautionary Tale is a website where you can access images of complete historical newspapers, including comics pages, for thousands of different U.S. newspapers. I have long been a user, supporter and fan of the website, and since their debut the content they offer has become an important factor in my research. Those web-based newspapers have saved me many hours in libraries looking at physical microfilm.

Because of the richness of that resource, I have put up with a lot. The website is notorious for technical glitches and performance issues. The search functionality, for instance, is bizarre. You can do a search on a term, then do the exact same search a minute later and get completely different results. Or no results. Or even no response at all from what appears for all the world to be a dead website. And when you do find an important result, and you eagerly choose to look at that newspaper page, sometimes it loads, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you get a message saying that the page is unavailable. Sometimes the page takes so long to load that you forget why you wanted to look at it in the first place.

Despite all this, I'm still a fan. I chalk up all the annoyances to the price I have to pay to get what I want. In fact, I even did an interview with the company's marketing director and wrote a highly complimentary article about the website for Hogan's Alley magazine. Shortcomings aside, the website offers access to an incredible database of newspapers -- far more than the half-assed and now moribund Google Newspaper Archive, far more than the Library of Congress' useful but very limited Chronicling America, and don't get me started on Proquest, the company that holds some of America's most important newspapers hostage.

In this world, the sin of being inept is one that we have to forgive more often than not. We grin and bear it, to echo Lichty.I have kept my subscription through thick and thin, through all the technical glitches and annoyances. When I couldn't get much use out of the site for weeks at a time, as they tinkered and inevitably broke things, I didn't call and read them the riot act. I knew that I was in this thing for the long run, and that the website would hopefully be working better the next time I visited. Like The Dude, I abide.

Yes, ineptitude I forgive. Chicanery, though, is another matter. And that brings me to the point. Last month I received an unwelcome surprise on my credit card bill. I'm used to seeing the charge, and sometimes when the website has been practically useless for a long period, I really grimace. However, last month I did more than grimace. I noticed that the amount had almost doubled. Actually, I didn't really get totally bent out of shape right off the bat. I'd had this happen once before. That time, when I called, they said they'd switched me to a new more expensive subscription plan "by accident" and that they'd fix everything right away. And they did. I figured this was another case of ethically questionable, but easy to resolve, bit of 'up-selling'.

But it wasn't. When I called the customer service line at I was told that my previous subscription plan was no longer offered, and they'd "automatically switched me to the closest option they now offer." I told them that their closest option was almost double what I was paying before, and that at the new price of $200 per year, as opposed to $120, I really had to think about whether I could afford to use their service. Besides, why wasn't I notified so that I could make up my mind what I wanted to do about their new subscription offering?

The rep, sounding so bored that it was obvious she'd already had this exact conversation many times over recently, said that by the subscription agreement they were allowed to change the price and terms. Well, I didn't appreciate the sound of that much, so I told her that I'd like to cancel my membership for now. Maybe I would return later when I need the service badly enough, or when they make a more attractive subscription offer. She said that was fine, she was cancelling my membership and that there would be no further charges at the end of the current period, which will end in November. Whoa there, I said. I want the service to stop this second, and I want that $100 charge on my credit card reversed. No can do, she said, because to get a refund you have to cancel your membership within 48 hours of when it is automatically renewed.

Through gritted teeth, I told her that I had received my credit card bill today. How was I to know they would change their subscription price before I received my statement? certainly hadn't bothered to inform me. She replied that, basically, rules are rules and tough luck Charlie. I told her I would dispute the charge with my credit card company. She told me to go right ahead.

So that's what I did. I explained the situation to a rep at the credit card company, and she agreed wholeheartedly that was engaging in underhanded business practices. She assured me that once all the paperwork was taken care of, unless something highly unlikely came to light, that there was most certainly a refund due me.

Flash forward three weeks. I receive a packet from the credit card company. They had contacted, and had received their response, in the form of their subscription agreement terms. The subscription agreement did indeed stipulate that the company was allowed to change the terms and fees at any time, and that they were not obligated to notify the subscriber when they do so, and if the subscriber doesn't somehow find out about the change within two days of it changing, they are locked in for another subscription period whether they like it or not. Ethical or not, fraudulent or not, I had stupidly agreed to those terms. It is out of the credit card company's hands. My only recourse would be to sue them in their home state, where a judge could decide whether their contract was legal.

My credit card company is now considering whether they should revoke's privileges to act as a merchant for the card in the future. That's good, and I hope they take positive action to discourage such underhanded business practices. What's bad is that I'm out $100 and a useful resource has been cut off to me. I suppose I should be relieved at the cost of this lesson. The company could just as easily have changed their subscription fee to $5000 and I'd be poorer by that amount. By the terms of their contract I'd be in the exact same boat with no recourse.

My conclusion? It's all because this company has chosen the unfortunate path of those who value only the quick buck. Why put a lot of money into creating a great website with superb content and treat your customers as valuable assets? Instead you can offer a shoddy product, add a little slick window-dressing and write a contract designed to forcibly extract money out of the customer when, inevitably, they wise up and decide to leave.

You'd think that the era of this sort of business model had passed. Today on the web every product gets reviewed by customers on innumerable highly public forums. If you treat your customers badly you have nowhere to hide; your secrets won't stay secrets for long. A web search on " complaints" reveals many, many disgruntled customers. If I was a prospective new subscriber who did my homework, I would never subscribe. Unfortunately, when I subscribed long ago, the bad buzz evidently wasn't nearly as loud. 
If you are considering a new subscription to, I can only plead that you read the fine print of that agreement and take into consideration the experiences of other subscribers. If you are a subscriber, and are thinking about cancelling, plan your exit very carefully if you don't want to get burned.

I'm really sorry to hear of this. This is such a wrong way to do business. I hope will come to its senses.
Yes, I too have found many frustrating parts of the site, especially if you want to print from it-for instance, you have no horizontal control, you must print half a page.
Whole runs of papers become inexplicably unavailable for as long as you need them.
Many papers (especially the British ones) are seemingly misdated in the wrong CENTURIES on purpose. Lots of time is pointlessly wasted, like when doing a search, you can't go directly to "exact phrase", you must first go to a general search that takes in everything back to medieval broadsides that contain even part of your quest, and only then can you go to "revise your search" which will allow you to start a new, more precise one. Also, it only gives you ten listings on a page. Why must there be a choice to restart the page to get twenty or thirty on a page? Why would one choose twenty over ten or thirty anyway?
The time is important because after whatever it is, maybe fifteen minutes?,you are suddenly off line and must go back and restart with your password at page one again. It doesn't matter if you are right in the middle of an involved search, it must stop and restart. It's not like it matters if you're a paying customer and have been for a while, they have your money, and there's no reason to consider you or what you might be there for in the first place, and it shows. It's like a bunch of rapcious illiterates got ahold of a site they didn't understand past the ability to screw Americans out of cash.
I second Mr. Holtz's sentiments and recommend that if you have any desire to use, by all means go for the minimum possible.
This is reprehensible behavior, but, of course, all quite legal.

The only issue I take with your essay is the suggestion that the day of this sort of business model has passed. On the contrary, its day is just beginning. The model that seems to have faded is the one they taught me in school umpteen years ago: by providing quality goods and services a business wins more customers and thus guarantees itself a long life, a decent profit, and a reasonable return for investors.

Its replacement seems to be to extract from customers as much money as possible as quickly as possible while using legal cover (obscure laws, mandatory arbitration, complex EUAs, etc.) to avoid responsibility for its actions. The present controversy about Goodwill Industries is instructive.

The age of the Ferengi is here!
There is still social media to publicly shame companies. No business can thrive that treats its customers like this.
Glad you wrote this, Allan. I too was recently using and found it to be the worst online microfilm resource I have ever used. Despite the impressive selection of papers, the interface is extremely poorly designed and stopped working altogether half way through the first (and only) month of my subscription. I'm currently pushing for a full refund and would suggest any other disgruntled researchers do the same, these scumbags don't deserve anyone's money.

I paid $39.95 for annual service last December. I looked at my account today and see my next payment this coming December will be $99.95 for six months. Nope -- I guess not. Good-bye Newspaper Archives in 6 months.
Thanks for the warning. I will check and quit if necessary as well.
Many of the users of Newspaperarchive are there for only a short term to do personal geneology and would go after the one week or month. Many of the rest are large institutions and libraries who will keep paying no matter what out of necessity and are using money not their own anyway.
Thanks for writing this. I didn't realize I have a recurring membership and I'm in for another $100 bucks for 6 more months. I will be more vigilant.
WOW!!! I had no idea...are there equivalent services you'd recommend?
I had my own experience with these clowns last year. My yearly subscription was renewed with a increase. I didn't protest. Then they billed me again 3 months later. I'm yearly, you bill me once not quarterly. To make a long story short
- I threatened to call the Cedar Rapids police to pursue possible fraud charges. I got the second charge reversed. Not a subscriber anymore.
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