It was a classic case of speaking first and thinking later or, to use a more apt and specific analogy, reporting a story and then doing the investigating. And the result was predictable: a dent in reputation and mockery from an archenemy.
On Dec. 28, an e-mail intended for about 300 New York Times subscribers who were presumably canceling their subscriptions was mistakenly sent by the Times to 8 million people who either had no immediate intention of ending their subscriptions or were not subscribers at all. The e-mail said, in part: “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.” An offer was made for 50% off for 16 weeks of Times delivery.
Three and a half hours later the Times sent an e-mail to those same people, apologizing for the error. This alone would have been embarrassing, but nothing serious. Just a simple case of human error. The problem was what happened in between those e-mails.
After receiving the first e-mail, a PR News staffer, who happens to be a Times subscriber, contacted a customer service representative—after enduring busy signals and trying different phone numbers—to say that he was not canceling his subscription. The CSR told him that the e-mail should not have been sent out to such an enormous contact list and that they weren't sure how it happened. She also suggested that it may have been sent by an "outsider."
Was this code for Rupert Murdoch's minions or some right-wing grassroots group?
Around this time, the Times' official Twitter feed (@nytimes) sent out a tweet: “If you received an e-mail today about canceling your NYT subscription, ignore it. It’s not from us.”
The "outsider" theory had apparently taken root throughout the organization.
A little while later, Amy Chozick, corporate media reporter for the Times, tweeted from her own account: "UPDATE on NYT email: 'The email was sent by the NYT, a spokeswoman said. Should've gone to appx 300 people & went to over 8 mil...Sender of NYT sub email was a Times employee, not employed by outside firm Epsilon, spokeswoman said. Company first called the email 'spam.'"
Chozick faced multiple tweets seeking clarification: “@amychozick Wait, So it was or wasn't a hack?” and “I am so confused. MT @amychozick…”
And then came that second e-mail to the 8 million people: "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 Times hadn't made the mistake of responding too quickly to the fallout from the initial e-mail—it made the mistake of offering an explanation too quickly. A better response would have been, simply, that it was looking into why the e-mail was sent and who sent it, and will share that information once both questions are resolved.
The headline on the Dec. 29 edition of the Murdoch-owned New York Post: "Bad Times: Caught in lie over 8.6 million 'spams.'"