Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
BuzzFeed is building a New York-based team to experiment with news video
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 3, 2011, noon

A publisher bets on The Onion to save his business — for real

The Onion’s print distribution is growing through franchising, and local publishers get to reap the ad revenue.

The career of Frank Mauran, owner of small Gaspee Publishing in Providence, R.I., is a parable of publishing’s hard times.

Print editions of The OnionIn the 1990s, he started up the Printing Equipment Guide, a biweekly publication for the publishing trade. “It’s been a hard slog,” Mauran said. “It’s a trade publication for what’s a shrinking industry.” How hard he won’t say, but there’s no guarantee the magazine will be around forever.

He attended a publishing conference in April, looking for a new idea, and caught a presentation by the CEO of America’s Finest News Source. “The Onion was delivering their content on a bunch of platforms,” Mauran recalled, including video, audio, social media, and cable television. “They said that they have print, as well. I was there with a fellow employee who’s been working with me for a long time on this other publication, and, you know, our ears perked up. There was nothing going on in Providence, and I thought, hey, I kind of know how to do that.”

Today, when the first issue hits the streets, Gaspee Publishing becomes the newest local franchisee of The Onion. Here’s the deal: Mauran’s company assumes all costs of printing and distributing the paper in Rhode Island and neighboring Bristol County, Mass., sells its own ads, and gets to keep the profits. The Onion retains total creative control of the content, including The A.V. Club, its for-realsies entertainment section.

I asked Mauran why he would start printing a newspaper now, in 2011, when he has a front-row seat on the industry’s free fall. It almost sounds like a premise for an Onion story.

“I think I can do better with this than with the publication that I have. The way the numbers work is a lot better,” he told me. “I don’t have any postage costs, and I can get much better ad rates. I’m hoping — at least I think I can get better ad rates. And I have a lot more potential advertisers,” he said. Gaspee can also sell local ads on The Onion’s website, which are displayed to people who live in the market.

The Onion logo“It’s very popular, I think, with young people in colleges, especially in this state, in this area,” he said. (Mauran consulted with his college-age children, he said.) “Plus, I don’t have to pay for a reporter or a newsroom. I pay a fee for The Onion, but it’s not an overwhelming one,” he said.

The Onion is now in 16 markets, more than doubling the number of print editions from this time last year, said Carrie Palmer, the paper’s director of franchising. She said there is still a strong demand for the print product (“like dialup, only slower”).

“That said, print media is not an easy business. It presents its own set of challenges and taking that on is not for everyone,” Palmer said. “The Onion thrives in communities with a young, smart, educated, and affluent population that also have a strong, local client base to support the publication. Print ads in the Onion are still great way for smaller, local businesses to gain exposure among a top-notch readership.”

The Onion started downsizing its print business a year ago, two decades after its first run at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — not by stopping the presses, but by franchising out the job. The move allows the company to focus on creating content without losing its physical footprint. And it’s appealing to publishers trying to sell ads, because The Onion already enjoys widespread brand recognition and virtually no competition.

All but two of the U.S. and Canadian print editions are local franchises; The Onion still operates directly in Milwaukee and New York.

H. Cuthbert Zweibel, The Onion’s ornery vice president of client relations, was not immediately available for comment.

POSTED     Nov. 3, 2011, noon
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
BuzzFeed is building a New York-based team to experiment with news video
It is the “center of a Venn diagram” between BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and BuzzFeed News.
With NYTEducation, The New York Times is taking its expertise and access to the classroom
“People come to learn with us because they want something that feels Times-ean in the experience.”
TipOff, an email newsletter, is trying to explain sports to non-fans
Launched last fall by a team of investors and writers, TipOff has attracted 50,000 subscribers.
What to read next
0
tweets
The Verge launches Circuit Breaker, a gadget blog-as-Facebook page
The Verge is launching a new gadget blog that is built for Facebook. (Articles will also run on The Verge’s website.)
0Millennial-focused local startup Charlotte Agenda is expanding its model to a second city, Raleigh
The North Carolina startup says it’s profitable and is looking to expand its reach — but it’s not seeking outside funding.
0With a scripted daily comedy news show, Mic looks to add a little late night TV to the social video mold
“We don’t just present a bunch of headlines and say what we think. Our videos are chock-full of facts and research.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
La Nación
INDenverTimes
Placeblogger
AOL
The Atlantic
West Seattle Blog
Tribune Publishing
El País
E.W. Scripps
Investigative News Network
Newser
Ushahidi