How USA Today Slips $82 Million a Year Onto Your Hotel Bill
People checking out of a hotel are usually in a hurry, whether on their way to catch a plane, return a rental car or get back to their families. Certainly they’re too busy to notice or care about a measly extra charge for 75 cents for an unrequested newspaper.
Gannett Co., the publisher of USA Today, has been profiting to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year from these small charges. But now that revenue could be in jeopardy thanks to a lawsuit from a guest who not only noticed the item on his bill — he was angry enough to sue over it.
Rodney Harmon’s lawsuit is against Hilton Hotels, not Gannett, but it may be the publisher that has more to lose. While many papers have deals to distribute copies through hotels, USA Today is by far the most dependent on them for readership: More than half of its daily circulation of 1.78 million consists of hotel copies. (The Wall Street Journal, by comparison, gets only 7 percent of its circulation from hotels.)
Of the 970,000 copies a day USA Today distributes through hotels, some 550,000 are paid for by the hotel and supplied free of charge to guests, according to figures reported to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. But the remainder are what’s known as “guest refund” copies, meaning the guest is automatically charged for them but can request a refund.
But you’re not going to ask for a refund if you don’t know you’ve been charged. “I suspect what happens is 90 percent of the time they don’t even notice it,” says newspaper analyst John Morton. “There’s so goddamn many things they add to hotel bills these days, it’s just another line of a small charge.” Occasionally, there have been complaints by consumers who realized what was going on, says Morton, “but I don’t know whether it ever rose to the level of a lawsuit before.”
Why would it? An extra 75 cents a day on a hotel room that costs $80 or $180 per night is hardly worth the bother of complaining about, much less hiring a lawyer. But the money involved on USA Today’s end is considerable. At the rate Hilton charges, those 420,000 guest refund copies generate $82 million in circulation revenue over the course of a year for USA Today. Even if you assume the hotel chains keep half of that for themselves, that’s still an extra $41 million — plus the advertising revenue the extra audience generates.
Read it all here.