Hilton Sued for Charging Customers for Unwanted Newspapers

'USA Today' could stand to lose millions in revenue

Next time you check out of a hotel, be sure to double-check your bill: You may have bought a newspaper that you never asked for in the first place.

A California man, Rodney Harmon, is suing Hilton Hotels for that exact reason. When he left one of the chain’s hotels last March, he noticed a copy of USA Today on the floor outside of his room. He never requested the paper, so he ignored it. But later, he noticed tiny print written on the pouch that held his key card, informing him that he would be charged 75 cent for each morning’s paper—unless he specifically un-requested it. So he sued Hilton.

Slipping 75 cents on a customer’s bill might seem like a little thing to make a big fuss about. But according to Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici, there’s a lot more at stake: Although Harmon is suing Hilton, USA Today could be in major trouble if the lawsuit proves successful.

Many newspapers distribute through hotels, says Bercovici, but USA Today is by far the most dependent on them for readership. More than half of the paper's circulation of 1.78 million comes from hotels. Of those 970,000 copies distributed at hotels each day, only about 550,000 are given to guests free of charge. The rest are “guest refund” copies, meaning that the guest is automatically charged for them but can request a refund—something that most of them won’t do, because they don’t even know they’re being charged in the first place.

Over the course of a year, those 420,000 guest refund copies add up to a whopping $82 million in circulation revenue for USA Today, according to Bercovici's estimate. Assuming that Hilton keeps about half of that, the newspaper is still getting $41 million, and a lot of ad revenue generated by the extra hotel audience—all  of which could be lost thanks to one customer’s having made the effort to read the fine print.