Times Club – e-mail from the Times Editor

Today, a letter from James Harding, Editor of The Times, was sent to all crossword club members.

Here’s what it said

Dear Mr MemberSurname,

This is a letter of apology. I know that you have had some significant problems with the new online registration system for The Times Crossword Club. The system broke down and it took longer than we hoped for us to fix the problems. I am sorry that this meant you were unable to access Times crosswords for a period of time, and as a very valued member of the Crossword Club I wanted to reassure you that we have been working on the problem day and night to find a solution.

Our initial objective was to provide you with a friendly, efficient new system for registering and subscribing to our clubs, emails and competitions. This did not turn out as intended. We encountered several overlapping problems involving our many technology partners, which took far longer than expected to fix. I mention this by way of explanation, not as an excuse. Our customer services team is working through all your emails and will get in touch with you in the near future to discuss the problems that you have encountered, if they have not already done so.

This cloud does have one silver lining: crossword club members have contacted us with such good suggestions of how to improve the club, that we are making sure that where possible we implement many of your great ideas. I would also like to offer you a Times pocket-sized Atlas of the World, a small token of compensation for the problems you have experienced. If you would like to receive this, please click here to enter your address details and we will send it to you by post (your information will not be added to our database or anyone else’s).

Once again, I offer my sincerest apologies and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support for The Times Crossword Club.

Yours sincerely,

James Harding

Editor – The Times

My first comment about this is that the Atlas (presumably this one) is simply not an appropriate form of compensation. Most serious crossword solvers will already have an atlas of some kind and don’t need another one. Those who don’t have one can use Google Maps, Wikipedia and other web sites to get far more detailed maps than you find in a pocket atlas. The appropriate compensation, as suggested by many club members here and elsewhere, is a period of free membership. For a £25 p.a. premium sub, the cash value of two months of membership is £4.17 – not a large sum, and less than the price of the atlas if I’ve identified it correctly. I can’t be the only member to suspect that giving away books (probably ones the Times can’t sell) is a cheap way of appearing to be generous.

My second comment is that as an apology from the top, this is nice to see but much too late – club members have been disgruntled for over two months now.

Thirdly and lastly, I hope that suggestions from me and others will contribute to a better club, but at present I don’t hold out much hope for this happening at all quickly. I feel sure that many of the suggestions have been made already, so they’re not really a benefit of the recent problems. If the problems have spurred The Times into responding to them, that is a benefit.

12 comments on “Times Club – e-mail from the Times Editor”

  1. Fine words butter no parsnips, as my gran used to say.

    It’s right that he should apologise, but that the chaos went on for so long (and happened in the first place) shows either gross incompetence or gross carelessness or both. The guy’s gesture is so mistimed and so inappropriate he should be in Parliament.

    Agreed Pete, what on earth is the use of a ridiculous little Atlas that they can’t sell? I’ve given better atlases than that to charity shops.
    No doubt if they’d had a stock of unused feather boas from an office party, he’d have offered those instead.

    To me, it just further demonstrates the contempt he has for us members of the paying public.

    Anyone remember The Navy Lark where the Admiral used to pause as visitors came in, say “Er, Good Morning!” and mutter to himself “That should hold them for a bit!”

    And the nonsensical bit about all your comments and recommendations being useful. Well, yes. Of course they will.

    If there were (subjunctive) another puzzle as good for my purposes, or it could be accessed another way, I’d have left them long ago.
    What a shower!

  2. And to add insult to injury, the online crossword isn’t there today.
    Why oh why as they say can somebody not have the job of checking it – if they can’t make sure it just works.
    Rocket science or brain surgery would be easier.

    I wonder if he’ll offer us an old copy of the Beano as compensation!

  3. I replied to Mr Harding.

    I suggested he get back to me when the site was fully tested and functional, and he has an offer of a full extension of the nearly three months the site has been compromised.

    Now, back to finding tomorrow’s puzzle number. Aaaaaaaargh!

  4. I find (in the UK) that 404 comes and goes but that the puzzle is now pretty much available – very few 404s lately. Give the editor his due – he’s trying to be nice, even if he is giving away a book with excess stocks (though we don’t know that!). As it is, crossworders do give newspapers a lot more work than they are prepared for every time something goes wrong with a puzzle — so let’s give them all a break and if we must say something, say soemthing nice (like ‘thank you’). We don’t want to appear like a lot of grumpy anoraks (even if we are).I shan’t bother with the atlas myself — I’ve got enough of them.
    1. I’ll admit that my grumpiness about surplus books goes back a long way. In the early 90s, I won an audience prize at a Times championship final. (In those days the puzzles were done one at a time and solved by the audience at the same time – the first finisher in the audience won a prize.) The four audience prizes were quite clearly surplus books, and as I won my prize for the last puzzle, I got the one that no-one else wanted. Something about varsity cricket I think – it went to a charity shop long ago.

      I don’t blame the editor himself for the choice to give out books. Like all bosses, he’ll be using advice from other people. I don’t think he got good advice when someone said ‘give them a book’.

      Edited at 2008-02-19 01:00 pm (UTC)

      1. While I share the frustration with ongoing technical problems, another aspect of this situation has occurred to me, and it gives me some misgivings.

        We could reasonably assume that Mr Harding has given much more attention to the Times Crossword Club over the last few days/weeks than previously. He will have found widespread dissatisfaction and some very critical comments about his organisation. He may also have come across several comments along the lines of ‘…a hopeless situation, so bad in the end that I was driven to go out and buy a paper…’

        The difference in revenue for Mr Harding is considerable: 8p per day for Club membership, against 70p for a paper (and more at the weekend). In addition, there are the costs of running the Club (IT, prizes, Roger Phillips’ time…) and potential loss of advertising revenue from lower sales of the actual newspaper(s). If I were Mr Harding, reading that crossword devotees are driven to buy the paper by problems with the Club’s systems would make me think long and hard about (i) the benefits of running the Club at all and (ii) if it is to continue, whether it is appropriately priced.

        I think the Club represents fantastic value for its members. We should perhaps be wary of making the Editor of the Times believe that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

        1. It’s a good point, and I am annoyed that I was one of those forced to buy a paper this morning, thus punishing the 404 Club for its uselessness by…er, giving them more money, simply so I could have access to something I’ve already paid for.

          However, the editor (or someone at a high level) must also realise that there is only so much people will take before they regretfully transfer their allegiance, or simply abandon the pleasure of a daily crossword altogether.

          More importantly for them in the long term, they have a problem because it is notoriously difficult to get people to pay for mere words on the web. People have an expectation that the online version of a newspaper will be as professionally published, and accurate, and wide-ranging, and up-to-date, as the real-world version; however they also expect it to be free. This may be unreasonable, but there are very few parts of the Times site that don’t have equivalents elsewhere; if I want news, or sport, or political comment, or travel features, I can get all those things quite easily. However, one thing that is a USP is the crossword – I could do the Guardian or Telegraph crosswords, but I think the Times is better. Thus I am prepared to pay a subscription for it, which is more than I’m ready to do for the right to read, say, the thoughts of Camilla Cavendish.

          I think this is why the software foul-ups were so annoying, because they inconvenienced the only people who were directly paying for anything on the website…

          1. Excellent. On your last point I expect many remember that this was not the first Times On-Line debacle in recent months.

            When the site was revamped some time last year it was in chaos for days if not weeks, and some items in the free content have still not been sorted out satisfactorily. Try finding the review of Last Night’s/Weekend TV for example or the latest Sudoku puzzles/solutions – sometimes they’re there, sometimes not.

            During the worst of this the only reliable area was the Crossword Club which they specifically said was excluded from the rewrite, but now that’s been messed up too.

        2. I agree that the club is good value – when it works properly.

          I don’t think closing down the club would increase revenue – it’s clear from the club’s own bulletin board that many members live abroad where it’s hard or pricey to get the print version. And at least some of the xwd club pages carry advertising too.

  5. I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel patronised by this offer, and to suspect it is a way of disposing of surplus stock. I wonder if it’s the newest edition? (I won the huge Times Atlas of the World for the Jumbo a couple of years back. By the time I’d decided to put it on e-bay because I could hardly lift it, the edition was out of date, and I think they’ve gone through about 4 editions of that atlas since then). Also, as someone pointed out, all of us will most likely have an atlas already.
    On the bulletin page – it’s annoying that so many of our moans and queries go unanswered, but the mix-up over 221b coming out as 22pounds, and its solution, are trumpeted as a great triumph – I should think most of us had managed to work out the correct meaning without having to wait for this earth-shattering rescue mission. Grr.
  6. As one of the overseas members,living in South Africa, I would like to add to the conversation that I didn’t receive the offer of the Atlas. I, therefore, didn’t have an opportunity to feel slighted by it. Of course, this may not have been a dastardly plot on the part of The Times to save on postage but merely because my problems over re-registration only lasted a fairly short time and were possibly deemed trivial as a result……
    1. My log-in problems were short-lived and I still got the e-mail. I suspect there’s been a slip-up in identifying the people to send them to or doing the sending.

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