In less than 24 hours the NY Times email hack or spam or cover-up, what have you, has drawn more attention than actual stories the news source provides. Emails were sent out to about 8.6 million Wednesday afternoon offering a 16 week 50% discount for home delivery service of the printed NY Times paper. Sounds simple enough, until a media frenzy erupted throughout online and offline media world regarding confusion, privacy and even conspiracy stories about a possible hack within the NY Times system. The official response, or rather latest, is that the message was a mistake on the part of an employee. Still doubts remain about whether the entire event was really an error, a security hack, a cover-up, a media ploy or something worse.
NYTime’s Email Controversy Timeline
Early afternoon, on Wednesday December 18th, some 8.6 million individuals, received a message in their inbox from firstname.lastname@example.org:
From: The New York Times
Subject: Important information regarding your subscription
Date: Dec 28, 2011 12:03 PM
Dear Home Delivery Subscriber,
Our records indicate that you recently requested to cancel your home delivery subscription. Please keep in mind when your delivery service ends, you will no longer have unlimited access to NYTimes.com and our NYTimes apps.
We do hope you’ll reconsider.
As a valued Times reader we invite you to continue your current subscription at an exclusive rate of 50% off for 16 weeks. This is a limited-time offer and will no longer be valid once your current subscription ends.*
Continue your subscription and you’ll keep your free, unlimited digital access, a benefit available only for our home delivery subscribers. You’ll receive unlimited access to NYTimes.com on any device, full access to our smartphone and iPad® apps, plus you can now share your unlimited access with a family member.
To continue your subscription call 1-877-698-0025 and mention code 38H9H (Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. E.D.T.).
Email Details Leaked
DomainTools shows the sender address email@example.com is registered to Epsilon Interactive, a third party company used by NYTimes for email solutions to communicate with subscribers. Ironically, Epsilon Interactive had a similar issue this year regarding email hacking(s).
Additionally, those who called the 1-800 number were sent to a general voicemail response followed by a fax number and an email “800.nytimes.com”, which of course is not a valid email address. Business Insider reports the voice message recording message announced:
“Thank you for calling the New York Times. Due to high volume, your call can not be completed at this time…”
Before addressing the public, New York Times contacted employees via email to address direct any company response that may leave the NYTimes offices unapproved. The internal email read:
From: NYT COMPANY MAIL
Date: Wed, Dec 28, 2011 at 2:05 PM
Subject: Regarding spam note about New York Times subscription
To: [ALL EMPLOYEES]
Please be aware that a spam message was sent broadly today with the subject line “Important information regarding your subscription.” This e-mail was not sent from The New York Times. If you received it, please delete it. We will be alerting subscribers immediately.
The Blame Game – NYTimes PR Put to Work
Having quieted their employees, NYTimes went to work dealing with the mass public inquiries next. The initial 8.6 million person public reaction? The real NYTimes phone lines were packed and Tweets were flying in about the strange email offer.
In domino-effect fashion, The Time’s delivery page, http://homedelivery.nytimes.com/, happened to go down for “routine maintenance” at 2:24 PM, about 90 minutes following the supposed ‘scam’ email delivery.
NYTimes, or rather “@nytimes” specifically, responded with a general tweet to all inquiries the company had received in 144 short characters. It was enough to let the public know, “It’s not us”:
Public Response #1 – Hacked?
In response, media outlines flew to public attention as other news outlets began publishing ‘hacker’ stories, claiming the @nytimes tweet as clear evidence form the NYTimes themselves. (Notice later that even after the tweet was removed, the NYTimes will maintain the company’s twitter was not hacked.) A Twitter account NYTSpam was quick to follow throwing embarrassing jokes around about the NYTimes for their lack of security, but also warning followers not to open the ‘spam’ email.
The New York Times Company Senior Vice President of Corporate Communication, Robert Christie, took to twitter in response, attempting to calm panic. He directed those with questions to contact Eileen Murphy for official comments, but still confirmed once more that the email was thought to be spam.
NYTimes Has a Change of Heart
With a “email-hack” media frenzy on their hands, and risking the loss of their remaining subscribers who are now mostly email based, NYTimes responded once again, claiming there was no hack, no security threat and their initial response was inaccurate.
Following their first reaction of centralized social media communication, Amy Chozick tweeted:
‘The email was sent by the NYT,’ a spokeswoman said. Should’ve gone to appx 300 people & went to over 8 mil.”
Then also answers the Epsilon rumors with a tweet seven minutes later:
“Sender of NYT sub email was a Times employee, not employed by outside firm Epsilon, spokeswoman said. Company first called the email ‘spam.’ “
In the true reporter good form, 11 minutes later, Chozick, promptly updated the Times’ owned media blog, Media Decoder Blog, http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/times-readers-inundated-by-false-e-mail-on-subscriptions/ . to reflect the company’s new stance.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communications for the Time, issues a statement explaining:
“An email was sent earlier today from The New York Times in error. This email should have been sent to a very small number of subscribers, but instead was sent to a vast distribution list made up of people who had previously provided their email address to The New York Times. We regret this error and we regret our earlier communication noting that this email was SPAM…will take every precaution to ensure this does not happen again.”
This time, the company sent an email out to all subscribers, capitalizing “CORRECTION”
From: The New York Times
Subject: CORRECTION: Important information regarding your subscription
Date: Dec 28, 2011 4:17 PM
Dear New York Times Reader,
You may have received an e-mail today from The New York Times with the subject line Important information regarding your subscription.”
This e-mail was sent by us in error. Please disregard the message. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
The New York Times
Later, Eileen Murphy, spokesperson for the Times Company reiterated that spam, hacks and other security threats were not an issue:
“We regret that the error was made, but no one’s security has been compromised, … It’s in our interest now to make sure people understand the correct situation,”
Public Response #2 – Controversy
Even with proper PR and a solid reputation to hold NYTimes afloat, doubts remain. The Times provided no specific details other than that emails were intended for about 300 individuals, and not 8.6 million. Regardless, the company publicly lied about sending emails to millions of individuals, which by most standards would be more than enough to consider the domain spam. Comments around the web reported individuals had received emails who had not opt-ed in to the Times emails at all, or had actively opt-ed out some time ago. Finally, a discount, a large discount that could potentially cost millions, was offered that will not be honored.
Likewise, there’s the obvious question over money as a major factor in yesterdays events. Admitting to any type of email hack would severely damage the reputation of the Times from any type of technology aspects. No big deal 10 years ago, but today, the major of Times subscribers are technology (aka email or browser) only. Could this be enough of a reason for the Times to swallow their pride, take the blame for sending out emails and blame an anonymous employee… All for the sake of keeping face?
Bloggers have also commented on the meaning of the email, more than the spam aspect, citing cases of trying to cancel home delivery for years, and being lured back in by an offer of 50% off for six months via a customer service phone representative at the Times. Is this a sign that anyone, technically, can get the home delivery discount? – And all you have to do is call and cancel for this offer?
Cover-up Scheme or Disgruntled Soon-to-be-Ex-Employees?
Neither are out of the question. Especially considering The New York Times Co. is currently in the process of selling off parts of the company. Tuesday, December 27th, one day before the email mishap, the New York Times Co. announced it would be selling off part of their media sector, Regional Media Group to Halifax Media Holdings for $143 million….in cash.
The sell includes Times-News, Herald-Journal, The Press Democrat, The Santa Rosa, The Sarasota Herald Tribute and Tuscaloosa News which is more than a good amount of employees.
In another irony somewhat covered-up by the entire email slip-up, December 27th, 2011, was also the day Regional Media Group employees were sent official news of the sell. In the letter which did not confirm any future employment would be available for current employees came complete with a General Questions Q & A regarding severance pay and future employment with any other sector of The New York Times Company.
Highlights of the General Questions Q & A include:
4. What is the process for determining who will be hired?
Halifax has decided who it will hire. Again, you will be notified within the next 48 hours whether the buyer will be offering you employment. The New York Times Company has not been involved in that decision.
5. Will all employees be given their same jobs?
That decision will be made by Halifax, but the requirement is that the job be comparable.
9. Will employees who do not become employees of Halifax Media Holdings be eligible for other jobs at The New York Times Company?
You are free to apply for any open positions with The New York Times Company, but overall the Company has reduced its staffing. Please note that if Halifax Media Holdings offers any benefits-eligible employee a comparable job by the closing of the sale and you reject it, you will not be eligible for severance.
11. Should I plan to look for another job?
We cannot advise employees on their personal, professional decisions.
You can read the entire leaked letter online. Honest Mistake? Employee Scam? Company Cover-Up? Money Issue? Hacker or Phishing Attach? You decide.