HOME
          
LATEST STORY
What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out
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.
What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out
“Nobody has to read you. You have to earn that. You have to respect people’s attention.”
Come work for Nieman Lab
We have an opening for a staff writer in our Cambridge newsroom.
The newsonomics of telling your audience what they should do
At WNYC, a public radio station is getting more aggressive about telling people what to do: go vote, get more sleep, stay healthy. What happens when a news outlet starts talking about behavior change?
What to read next
718
tweets
Ken Doctor: The New York Times’ financials show the transition to digital accelerating
The numbers may look flat, but they contain a continuing set of ups and downs. Up next: executing on a year’s worth of launches.
540Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories
At least in certain contexts, WhatsApp is a truly major traffic driver — bigger even than Facebook. Should there be a WhatsApp button on your news site?
502Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
Old and new media types from journalism, documentary, and technology backgrounds gathered at MIT to share practices and discuss mutual concerns.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
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 ➚
The Globe and Mail
FiveThirtyEight
The Nation
Politico
Suck.com
PolitiFact
The Weekly Standard
Zonie Report
The Daily Telegraph
Topix
Press+
Newsmax