We are at least a decade into panicked conversations about whether the U.S. newspaper industry can save itself — or evolve its way through our transformation to a digital culture. For a while, apathy, denial, and the inaction that comes with both were the worst reactions to this wakeup call. But over the past few years, a more offensive and damaging trend has emerged: Local newspapers have gotten really good at mistreating their most loyal customers. They’re treading water today by drowning the local revenue base of tomorrow.
From predatory, report-it-to-the-Better-Business-Bureau-level print circulation tactics to websites clogged with popup ads and clickbait, publishers sure are acting like they’re in the desperate, dying industry that the public perceives.
Let’s start with the people who still subscribe to the print edition of a newspaper. They provide a very significant, although certainly shrinking, chunk of the industry’s revenue, one that has been substantially more stable than print advertising. Whether consuming content in print or another platform, they are local and engaged, community influencers who can shape a brand’s reputation.
Over the past few years, across newspaper chains borrowing these ideas from one another, print subscribers have seen steep price increases. One subscriber could be paying $600 a year while his neighbor pays $100 for the same product, all based on an algorithm designed to get as much money as possible out of those either willing to pay more or inattentive to their household bills. Losing a significant number of print customers in the process isn’t a problem if the rest agree to a big enough price increase for the math to work.
Leveraging newspapers’ remaining print revenue as a “bridge” to a digital business model for local journalism is a no-brainer. But across the industry, there’s little evidence of investment in digital. Rather, aggressive price increases on the print side coupled with deep newsroom expense cuts are simply being used to maintain the profit margins the shareholders of legacy newspaper companies have come to expect.
And the war on both print and digital readers is intensifying.
In the past two years, community newspaper companies have moved toward website paywalls that are really about print revenue. Aside from national brands such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, minuscule numbers of people are actually paying for digital-only access to local journalism. The move to paywalls was a way for newspapers to get a significant increase in revenue from print customers now forced to purchase a “bundle” of print and online access.
And even that has not been enough. A popular new tactic is producing “premium” special print sections periodically throughout the year, and charging home delivery subscribers a dollar or two extra for them unless they “opt out” of receiving the additional service. To opt out, they have to catch the small type in print edition house ads or on billing paperwork explaining the new policy. Some newspapers are charging subscribers extra for the Thanksgiving day paper because of all of the advertising circulars that are included. And rather than itemize these on an actual bill that would draw attention to the practice, newspapers charge extra by shortening a customer’s subscription period.
Last spring, I got busy and let one of my newspaper subscriptions lapse. A grace period is typically offered after a subscription ends to give a customer time to renew. A first for me, however, was the bill I later received for that grace period…from a collection agency. I’d paid up front for one year, and didn’t sign up for anything more than that.
Of course, one would rather go to the dentist or wait around for the cable repairman than pick up the phone and try to talk to a live person who knows things and has the authority to do something about it. Long ago, newspapers outsourced their main point of contact with customers. Attempting to bypass that system and talk to someone who actually works at your local paper is notoriously difficult. And of the four daily newspapers delivered to my home, only one — The Wall Street Journal — has a functioning online system for managing one’s subscription and reporting problems.
Meanwhile, community newspaper companies have taken shortcuts to digital audience and revenue growth that alienate the non-print customers. Websites are clogged with dozens of banner ad positions, popups, and page “takeovers.” Little money has been left after hitting margins, apparently, to invest in mobile platforms that work well.
And hurt by a poor user experience and diminished ability to produce original content, newsrooms feel pressure to manufacture pageviews by aggregating the latest viral video or minor piece of national breaking news that 1,000 other sites are also rushing to post. Rather than make it as easy as possible for a reader to access even this kind of information, editors go out of their way to put immediate pageviews on their own site first. Whether it’s forcing them to click twice or three times to get the content they were looking for, or writing clickbaiting headlines that trick some into chasing a story they weren’t actually interested in, the tactics are similar to what publishers are doing with print circulation.
If the value in community newspapers is having a trusted brand and engaged local audience — leveraged by a grassroots salesforce with access to and relationships with local businesses that national tech companies can’t reach — the newspaper industry’s current tactics are a ticking time bomb.