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Aug. 28, 2019, 12:15 p.m.
Business Models

How publishers are cutting print days — and not losing (too many) subscribers

“The key is the consumer will let you know when they’re done with the print product. Don’t prematurely yank it from them.”

Cutting print is going to happen. But what’s the best way to make it happen?

It’s now inevitable that many newspaper publishers will slash the frequency of their print product. They won’t necessarily change their online output, but will reduce the number of days they spend setting up the newsprint, paying plant workers to assemble it and drivers to deliver it, etc. Chased by newsprint tariffs and squeezing budgets, un-dailying the daily newspaper is “one of the top topics of discussion in the boardroom,” an industry consultant told Ken Doctor earlier this month.

More than 100 U.S. newspapers have changed their printing frequency since 2004, according to UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, but that number is expected to skyrocket. This discussion could be wrapped up and in action as early as 2020.

The American Press Institute has a new strategy study on the best-case scenario for this reduction and how companies can approach this step. (Remember, a sizable chunk of the most loyal subscribers are the folks who want the habit of the print newspaper every day and may not take to a company-provided iPad, for example.) There are several parties at play: readers/subscribers, of course, but also advertisers and local leaders.

“Reducing print days is often about cutting costs for immediate financial survival. A better approach is to make planned, proactive decisions about downscaling print as a step toward a long-term digital future,” David Ho writes in the report. He interviewed newspaper publishers, editors, and advisors; here’s some of what he learned:

A scramble or a strategy?

You can do this the easy way or the hard way — or rather, the short-term way or the long-term way. Ideally there should be a (years-long) process baked into this decision that involves strengthening your digital offerings, helping your print subscribers adjust, and talking with advertisers about the print days that matter most to them.

  1. Ken Herts, the Lenfest Institute: “If the goal is to preserve a news business, then as people shift away from print, just shifting away from print is shifting out of business.”
  2. Ken Doctor: “The question for the newspaper industry is whether it faces this in an organized strategic way or does it do this out of desperation.”
  3. UNC’s Penelope Abernathy: “You really need to have in place a business plan in which you aim to transform a third of your business model every five years.”

The Greeley Tribune in Colorado viewed cutting print as a strategic reallocation rather than just cost savings. “I just moved my dollars from being spent on print product to the marketing department. All of my peers seem to use it as an expensive savings. I didn’t give that to my owners, and they’re okay with that,” publisher Bryce Jacobson said. (Here’s how he explained the changes to his readership.) “The reorganization was more important to me than putting that money to the bottom line because we’ve got to figure out how to do business differently if we’re to succeed in this industry.”

Pick the right day(s), being mindful of what matters locally

When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first cut print days in 2018, Monday — the day after the Steelers usually play — was protected by the passion of football fans. But now, on track to hit one weekday and one weekend day of print, the Post-Gazette has cut Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays altogether and will cut more starting Sept. 30. They decided to maintain Wednesday print to preserve early-week high school sports coverage and Monday/Tuesday local government meetings.

(Gannett, GateHouse’s new corporate subsidiary, impacted local sports in a different way: Its cost-cutting involved pushing up print deadlines so drastically that a local university’s baseball championship win wasn’t in print until 36 hours later.)

For some really strained papers, reframing as a weekly made sense. Western Michigan’s Iona Sentinel-Standard had “the heart of a weekly but was operating as a daily,” group editor Sarah Leach told Ho.

Mind the math gap

When is it time to cut print? “The key is the consumer will let you know when they’re done with the print product. Don’t prematurely yank it from them,” Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Terry Egger said. “We need to continue to price the print product up until we hit a threshold where the consumer says no.”

And mind the subscribers’ math, too — they might feel shorted if you reduce their print but not their price. Colorado’s Daily Sentinel introduced new subscription options (without the luxury of time to test them) when it cut print days last year:

One option at The Daily Sentinel is a discounted hybrid subscription: print delivery of just the three days containing pre-printed inserts, coupons and magazines plus e-edition access all seven days. Another option is a seven-day e-edition-only subscription…

At The State Journal in Kentucky, Publisher Steve Stewart said he tried to deliver a simple message to potential critics about pricing: “What this allowed us to do is not raise your bill.”

The paper had held steady for the last decade at $12 a month for six-day print delivery.

With some readers, Stewart said, he was blunt about the larger financial realities. He used the analogy that “the Snickers bar that you’re paying $1 for today is smaller than the Snickers bar you paid 50 cents for five years ago.”

Stewart also answered readers’ questions when The State Journal moved to delivering the paper via USPS. No Snickers analogies here, though.

Reader response

As much as you prepare, there will be some readers who don’t realize (or accept) the change until their daily crossword puzzle is not at their doorstep in the morning. (And your mom might get mad at you, in the case of Greeley Tribune publisher Jacobson.)

At The Daily Sentinel, publisher Jay Seaton had published a column about the switch, included PSAs in the newspaper about it for a month, organized seminars at the library for readers to practice with their own devices, and even had management visit subscribers in their homes. But he realized it wasn’t just about the news in print — it was the daily crossword, the daily obituaries, and more. “They don’t necessarily read it for the reasons we think they read it,” Seaton said.

The Greeley Tribune introduced an email newsletter to address concerns about delayed obituaries. Its daily obituary newsletter is its best performer, with more than a thousand subscribers and a 50 percent open rate.

And the e-edition: One of newspapers’ first (and sometimes most frustrating) digital moves might be a good transition product…or a further waste of time. Publishers are split on the role of the e-edition in the post-print age. North Carolina’s Salisbury Post “really really needed to take the time that we save and put it towards local content instead of building a newspaper that we’re not going to print,” publisher Greg Anderson said. But Seaton at The Daily Sentinel “wanted to get people comfortable accessing it and realizing it’s a pretty good product and a good way to consume your daily newspaper.” E-edition at will.

The full API study has a deep look at the risks of other publishers moving into your local territory as seven-day options (ahem, the Times-Picayune) and more information on how newspapers refocused on digital in the aftermath of print.

PHOTO OF NEWSPRINT BY AMANDA GRAHAM USED UNDER A CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2019, 12:15 p.m.
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