In five-and-a-half years of blogging, this is by far the least fun I’ve ever had writing a post. Read the whole thing, though, because some of this you’ve probably heard about…but some of it is likely brand new information, and it’s kind of icky.
I’ve been a NewspaperArchive.com customer for years. I love doing newspaper research, and their collection includes a county in southern Minnesota where I have deep roots. In fact, longtime readers of this blog may recall that I was an affiliate for them for some time.
I last purchased a one-year subscription in February 2013, for $71.88 (although I was actually charged $95.88, which is going to be important in a few paragraphs). Not long after that, I began to hear rumblings in the online genealogy community that people were having their subscriptions auto-renewed at a rate of $99.95 for six months. That’s more than double what I’d paid, and like most folks I know, I wasn’t too happy about the dramatic price increase, especially when there was absolutely no notice. I considered keeping the subscription anyway, but realized that that price was simply beyond my budget. I could get a whole lot of newspapers on microfilm for $200/year.
I track my genealogy subscription expiration dates, so when February rolled around again, I knew that this one was about to expire. I had emailed them at the time I subscribed last year, saying that I didn’t want to auto-renew. I also gave them a credit card that had expired last summer, so they couldn’t “accidentally” auto-renew me anyway. I logged on in mid-February to confirm that they only had an expired credit card, so they couldn’t charge me.
On 21 February, I received an email from NewspaperArchive.com, saying that they couldn’t renew my subscription because my credit card had expired. I made a note of the fact that they’d even tried it, since I told them I didn’t want it renewed, but since their effort had failed I didn’t worry about it. It’s worth noting, though, that I never received anything at all from them telling me that (a) my subscription was renewing or (b) that they’d more than doubled the price I’d originally agreed to.
On 17 March I reviewed my credit card statement. I noticed that on 24 February (three days after they’d emailed me), I was charged $105.95 by NewspaperArchive.com. I emailed them, pointed out that I had requested non-auto-renewal, and asked them to reverse the charge.
If you guessed that they snottily pointed me to their terms of service, you guessed right. In fairness, the Terms of Service DO say, repeatedly, that they do not give refunds, ever (I don’t know when they added all of that, but I didn’t get an email about it). They also say that you’re responsible for keeping your credit card information current and that you’re still on the hook if you don’t (so if you’re using a temporary, single-use card as outlined in this post, you’re violating their Terms and you still owe the money). What they don’t say is that they will type in new expiration dates themselves until they get one that sticks, and then charge you anyway. They also say that you can notify them that you don’t want to auto-renew, and I did.
After days of back-and-forth emails in which I pointed out repeatedly that I HAD notified them not to auto-renew me, they offered me a 75% refund. By then, though, I had already noticed something very interesting.
The price of a subscription was listed on their website as $99.95. They’d charged me $105.95. Why the discrepancy?
Then I remembered what had happened last year. I thought I was buying a one-year membership last year for $71.88. They’d charged me for $95.88. I’d emailed them and asked about the difference, but received no reply. I did some digging back then, and saw that when you sign up for a NewspaperArchive.com membership, there’s an ad for a charity at the bottom. If you look very closely at that ad, you’ll see that they’ve auto-checked a box for you, giving your consent to a donation to a charity called GlobalWayMakers.org. You have to notice the ad, review it carefully, and uncheck the box (and then you’ll have to uncheck another box too). I didn’t look very closely at it, because it was an ad unrelated to what I was buying, and because I’ve never heard of anyone auto-adding a charitable donation to your subscription. I debated fighting them on it, but I figured it was my bad since I didn’t inspect every single pixel, and I wasn’t auto-renewing anyway, so whatever.
So, the $24 extra I’d paid in 2013 was for a donation to GlobalWayMakers.org. Presumably, the extra $6 they’d charged me this year was for the same charity (although I can’t be sure, because although I asked repeatedly, they refused to tell me what it was for).
So who is GlobalWayMakers.org?
I took a look at their website. It does say that Christopher and Debora Gill are two of the three members of the board of directors. I knew those names were connected to NewspaperArchive.com, although it’s unclear what their roles are; that information seems to have disappeared from the company’s “About Us” page. On this consumer complaint page from 2012, Debora Gill self-identified as the “owner” of NewspaperArchive.com. However, the GlobalWayMakers.org website doesn’t specifically mention any connection to NewspaperArchive.com.
Fortunately, the Wayback Machine does. In October 2009, the main page for GlobalWayMakers.org said that the charity was “a nonprofit 501(c)3 humanitarian and philanthropic expression of NewspaperArchive.com” run by Christopher and Debora Gill. By March 2010, the reference to NewspaperArchive.com had been removed. It’s been gone ever since.
That might lead you to believe that these two entities are no longer connected, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. You can review the IRS 990 forms for any charity at GuideStar.org (you’ll need to register, but it’s free, and these are public records that are meant to be accessible to donors and others). Global Way Makers is listed as a
Catholic [now listed as Protestant---see the comments section below for details] charity located at 855 Wright Brothers Boulevard Southwest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you search that address on the internet, you’ll find that it’s also the headquarters for NewspaperArchive.com. The Form 990s are listed for 2006, 2007 and 2012. Each of them lists Debora Leitner as the Executive Director. A quick Google search indicated that it’s likely that this is actually Debora Gill. (Note: I know from being in HR that there are many women whose legal name is different from the one they share with a spouse, so no knock there. Also, many charities have an outside firm do their tax stuff, and it looks like this one did too. They probably just had outdated info in their records.)
The Form 990 for 2006 indicates that Global Way Makers brought in $13,500 that year. In 2007, they brought in $500. In 2012, they raked in $198,189. Clearly that automatically-checked-checkbox-in-the-ad thing is working out well for them.
I started to wonder just what this “humanitarian and philanthropic expression of NewspaperArchive.com” does with the money. GuideStar.org doesn’t have an impact statement for them, but not all charities submit that. The GlobalWayMakers.org website says that they address human trafficking, microbusinesses and scholarships, orphanages, and poverty. Those are all great goals, but as a donor (a unwitting donor who became a donor by automatically being opted in via a checkbox hidden in a graphic, but still), I’d like to know exactly where my money went. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an annual report or any other document that answers that question.
I was also curious about how all of this works with NewspaperArchive.com’s Terms of Service. They say in many places that there are no refunds, that you’d be auto-billed, that you’d better pay up, etc. However, there’s not a word about Global Way Makers, even though your (auto opt-in) donation is billed in the same transaction as your subscription (and in my case, my auto opt-in donation was made as result of their changing the expiration date on my credit card without permission). That seems…not cool. I haven’t heard of any charity operating that way, and I wonder whether the charities Global Way Makers says they work with are okay receiving money that’s been obtained like this.
During the five days I spend corresponding with NewspaperArchive.com about my subscription renewal, I asked many of these questions, repeatedly. I asked whether Global Way Makers was connected to NewspaperArchive.com, and how. I asked whether Debora Gill and Debora Leitner were the same person. I asked why there was no mention of the charity in the Terms of Service. After asking repeatedly, I got silence for a couple of days (which is odd, because they were very responsive when they were telling me about the NO REFUNDS EVER policy). Then I got an email from a person who refused to give his/her name, saying that I’d be receiving a refund of the full $105.95 and that my NewspaperArchive.com account was being canceled. It was, within minutes. I received the refund a couple of days later.
It’s been six weeks, and I’ve been debating whether to post about this. I also hoped that after I’d repeatedly raised these questions, they’d revise the Terms of Service to address this, clarify the relationship between the two entities on their websites, and/or uncheck the auto-donate box so people can opt in instead of opting out. So far, they haven’t.
I’m not a company basher. In fact, I routinely take crap for objecting to the recreational company-bashing we sometimes see in this community. I’ve had a long, reasonably happy relationship with NewspaperArchive.com, and I got my money back in the end. They certainly have the right to make up draconian Terms of Service and more than double their rates (although it would be nice if they informed customers of those things). They probably even have the legal right to tamper with my credit card expiration date until they get some money out of me. It turns out that there are other companies that do this, although I certainly don’t want to do business with people like that.
But the charity thing…that’s just not cool. They might be doing great things at Global Way Makers, but this just isn’t an appropriate means of financing your whole change-the-world thing. If you want to raise money, do it the right way. This ain’t it. Be transparent.
June 2014 Update: The local newspaper in Cedar Rapids has reported that NewspaperArchive.com is now under state review. Click here to read the story.
Photo by Michael Theis