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Gannett to pay $13.8 million in telemarketing case

Gannett Co, the publisher of USA Today and 112 daily publications in the U.S. and the U.K., this week will pay $13.8 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging violations of telemarketing law.

The suit alleges Gannett violated a federal law by placing automated phone calls to cell phones without consent. The award is due to individuals who received such calls between Jan. 2, 2010, and Aug. 4, 2016.

Gannett, which also owns 400 non-daily newspapers in the U.S., denies wrongdoing.

An email to the Gannett corporate communications office was not returned.

In the original federal complaint filed in New Jersey, plaintiffs allege thousands of telemarketing calls were made without the recipient’s consent, some of them to numbers that had been placed on the National Do Not Call Registry and after consumers asked telemarketers to remove them from any call list.

“These calls are placed on a near daily basis, and often multiple times per day," the complaint claimed.

Like many corporations, Gannett has relied on telemarketing to contact prospective customers. And like most media enterprises, Gannett has operated telemarketing operations to solicit subscribers for decades.

When the National Do Not Call Registry was being formed by Congress in 2002, the Newspaper Association of America decried the action and said that telemarketing generates up to 60 percent of new subscribers.

Today, the figure has dropped to 20 percent, according to the NAA but newspapers continue to use telemarketing.

Several states exempt newspapers from telemarketing restrictions, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma.  

Gannett, though, has been a leader in the use of telemarketing.

A 1990 profile of Gannett's telemarketing operation in the business-to-business publication Network World reported on the company’s fledgling automated calling systems, “which automatically dial potential subscribers from a database of up to 10,000 names…”

Gannett’s publications write stories about the practice and abuse of telemarketing, as well as a form of telemarketing referred to as “robocalls,” or the automatic dialing of a number with a recorded voice.

The action against USA Today does not allege robocalling.

In July 2014, USA Today ran a story linking elder abuse and telemarketing about the alleged scamming of older people via phone calls.

In February, a story by a reporter at the Gannett-owned Post-Crescent in Appleton wrote of the inefficiency of Wisconsin’s “do not call” list.

In July, a story by the consumer advocate reporter at the Gannett-owned Green Bay Press-Gazette noted that “robocalls continue to inundate American consumers, and there is no sign of them slowing down.”

Time Warner, owner of CNN News Group, was ordered last year to pay a Texas woman $229,000 for robocalls placed to collect a debt. The number it called belonged to someone else.

In both the Gannett and the Time Warner cases, the calls were alleged to have violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which outlaws certain telemarketing calls.