Cutting print: Making it work when publishing days must go
- Reducing print publishing days should be one step in a gradual, carefully-planned transition to digital.
- Deciding which print days to cut requires significant logistical and financial planning. That involves calculating cost savings; working with advertisers to shift ads to other days of the week; looking at reader habits; and deciding on subscription pricing.
- Communicating with readers and advertisers is critical when eliminating print days. Publishers can use various tactics, from publishing articles, columns and ads, to holding meetings with community and business leaders and one-on-one chats with subscribers.
- Newspapers cutting print must already have built a digital business that is based on a deep understanding of their audience. Time and resources saved by cutting print should be devoted to figuring out how to increase the value proposition for digital subscribers.
When a large U.S. newspaper cuts print publication days or curtails home delivery, headlines may scream media apocalypse.
But for years, newspapers here and there across the country — little noticed beyond their home markets — have gradually scaled back print publishing. Papers of all sizes have considered it. Some are considering it right now.
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.
Between 2004 and 2018, at least 104 U.S. newspapers reduced publishing frequency enough to change from “daily” status (publishing three or more times a week) to “weekly” status (printing two or fewer times a week), according to data obtained from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. The center, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, maintains a proprietary database on more than 9,000 local newspapers.
The total number of newspapers reducing print days in recent years is certainly higher given that the database doesn’t record reductions too small to cross the threshold into weekly status, according to UNC.
Cutting print days has been one path forward for U.S. newspapers in a time of profound disruption. Several chose that path in the last year.
The pursuit of newspaper survival — and success — through reducing print frequency and shifting to digital is the focus of this report, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies. This study is based on interviews with newspaper publishers, editors and executives plus industry experts. Nearly all of them have direct experience with reducing print frequency.
The report explores how newspapers can chart a sustainable path forward by reducing expenses related to print publishing and delivery and building a digital presence better suited for modern reader habits. This path is full of challenges and pitfalls, from picking which days to cut and migrating advertisers to doing the math of delivery logistics and managing internal pushback.
Whether it is exploring approaches to e-editions or ensuring readers are not surprised when papers stop landing on doorsteps, the newspaper leaders interviewed offered best practices for cutting print days.
Chapter 2 of this report, “Two paths to reducing print,” describes a deliberate route to reducing publication days that is focused on long-term sustainability and a transition to digital. It also describes the hard reality faced by publishers who rapidly cut days when faced with mounting financial pressures.
Chapter 3, “Planning to eliminate publishing days,” explores the experiences of newspapers that have cut print days and offers insights, best practices and alternatives. Key issues addressed include identifying which days to cut, understanding the financial benefits and costs, anticipating the impact on advertising and considering changes in subscription pricing.
Chapter 4 of the study concerns the negative reactions a publishing cut will cause. “Facing pushback before and after a reduction” addresses communicating extensively with readers, winning back those who cancel subscriptions and dealing with pushback from within a newspaper’s own ranks. This part also looks at the experience of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and how that became a cautionary tale for many publishers.
Chapter 5 looks to the future and “Improving digital in the shift away from print.” This part explores the difficult truth that cutting print alone is not enough. For newspapers to survive, they must shift readers to digital and improve digital news experiences overall. This section addresses the debate over e-editions, which serve some readers well but may ultimately be a dead end. It also looks at advancing the news experience through better data, websites, mobile apps and email and the need to invest in quality content for both print and digital.
Two paths to reducing print: a long-term transformation vs. a rapid cut for survival
The Best Path: Reducing print on a thoughtful journey to digital
Cutting a newspaper’s publishing days can save money by eliminating the pieces of the business — trucks, paper and printers — for which there is declining consumer demand. But cutting alone is not enough to ensure a newspaper will continue to exist and serve its community. Publishers need a deeply planned and well-executed strategy, one that acknowledges that reader habits have moved beyond the seven-day daily paper. The approach must also deliver the quality content that audiences demand to the technologies and platforms they currently use.
“Reducing publishing days is not an end in itself. It’s part of your path to sustaining your newsroom in a digital future,” said Ken Herts, director of operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Herts, who advises newspapers on digital transitions, has held roles including publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe and vice president and general manager of Dow Jones Newswires. When he was vice president of finance for the Consumer Media Group at Dow Jones — which includes The Wall Street Journal’s print, online, and international editions — he helped the group restructure its printing and distribution operations.
Everybody is clear that at some point in the future, seven-day dailies will simply not be economical … the question for the newspaper industry is whether it faces this in an organized strategic way or does it do this out of desperation.
Herts said the preparation leading up to a publishing reduction should span years. Steps on the way include using subscription offers to acclimate print subscribers to fewer days with a physical paper, working with advertisers to shift ads and preserve revenue, and enhancing and pushing digital access.
“Subscribers need to see the value of the digital component of their subscription if they’re going to continue to pay after they lose print days,” Herts said.
The loss of print days is coming whether publishers want it or not, said Ken Doctor, a media industry analyst and author of “Newsonomics.”
“Everybody is clear that at some point in the future, seven-day dailies will simply not be economical. We are clearly moving toward a world of mostly weekly plus digital,” Doctor said. “There’s an inevitability to it, and the question for the newspaper industry is whether it faces this in an organized strategic way or does it do this out of desperation.”
Pressure on the seven-day model is not new, said Penelope Abernathy, Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at UNC.
“Most publishers of dailies acknowledge that even in the best of times, there were only three days that were profitable,” Abernathy said. She said those days typically were the often-popular Sunday, a Wednesday or Thursday filled with inserts or grocery ads, and Friday, which led into the weekend with entertainment content and advertising.
Those three days have often been profitable enough to subsidize the rest, she said.
Abernathy, who has authored research on the loss of U.S. local news and the growth of “news deserts,” said newspapers could learn much from other industries. A key lesson, she said, is that “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.”
“This is a very difficult thing for people to grasp until their back is up against the wall,” Abernathy said. She said many publishers have not looked ahead and instead have “been in the process of just putting out fires and trying to stay afloat.”
You really need to have a business plan in which you aim to transform a third of your business model every five years.
As they plan, publishers who want to reduce print should identify their unique value proposition, Abernathy said, and also cut anything that no longer works.
“You need to figure out what your key assets are that will translate in the digital realm,” she said. “You have to do it in a way that is going to serve the needs of your community.”
The Greeley Tribune, a Swift Communications newspaper serving a market north of Denver, reduced print publishing days at the start of 2019. It shifted from being a seven-day-a-week daily to distributing print papers on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Publisher Bryce Jacobson said audience data — particularly market and reader surveys in 2017 — showed that reader habits had fundamentally changed.
“That’s the driver of the decision,” he said. “There is no seven-day habit, so we should try to meet our readers where they are.”
Jacobson said that insight led to a nearly two-year “three-focus process” that included the publication change, a business reorganization and participation in the Poynter Institute’s local news innovation program, an extension of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. He said that while involvement with the program came after the decision to reduce print, it helped his team focus on a concept he calls “digital first, print better.”
“We’re really starting to see the benefits of that now,” he said. “We’ve got stories every week that we run online, and then we see the social interaction or the comments from readers — or just performance in general — and we make it better for print” as a result.
Unlike most of the publishers interviewed for this study, Jacobson said his goal in reducing days was not savings. Instead, he said, he bulked up his newsroom and marketing team.
“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,” he said. “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.”
As newspapers embark on these transformations, they must be aware that a print reader doesn’t necessarily become a digital reader, said Terry Egger, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and former publisher of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer. He said how well that transition happens is critical.
“You can have all the projected math,” Egger said, “but making sure you understand what creates that connection and translating that transference of the habit to your content in another form is a huge issue.”
Newspapers also must build a digital business before print is slashed, Herts said.
“If you haven’t built a digital business before that, then you’ve got no money for your newsroom,” Herts said. “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.”
In Frankfort, Ky., The State Journal eliminated its Monday edition last year after about a year of planning.
“It was not a snap decision. It was something that was considered and analyzed very carefully,” said Publisher Steve Stewart. “It was a consideration and calculation of investing more in digital, which is our future.”
The State Journal’s team started emphasizing digital readership before its frequency reduction and had about 200 print subscribers convert to digital-only. It also launched a metered online paywall in July of 2018.
Removing the expense of one print edition each week allowed the paper to maintain the size of its newsroom and direct its work toward digital, Stewart said.
Stewart said that while he thinks all U.S. newspapers may be less than daily in print in the next decade, he is “bullish on our future.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to create this reader-funded business model and build a digital future,” Stewart said. “It’s equal parts daunting and exciting.”
The Forced Path: Making the best of it when print must be cut quickly
Deep preparation and a gradual, thoughtful transition — ideally spanning years — is the best path forward for a newspaper moving to digital and planning for a long future. However, newspaper leaders often do not have the luxury of time.
Most of those interviewed for this study had to rapidly reduce costs and faced hard choices around maintaining news coverage and serving their communities. While their actions varied from gradual steps to massive reorganizations, these newspapers made their shifts in months, not years. The changes they made are ongoing experiments playing out right now.
The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colo. — across the state from Greeley — had experienced years of growing financial pressure. In the summer of 2018, the cumulative effect of shrinking print advertising revenue and rising newsprint costs forced it to cut its Monday and Tuesday print editions.
“It really wasn’t on the radar, other than it was something that we all agreed we didn’t want to do,” Publisher Jay Seaton said. “It wasn’t until our hand was forced that we decided this is something we need to look at seriously.”
Seaton said his team realized the paper still had an 18th-century business model and they “needed to rip the Band-Aid off” to modernize. After less than three months of planning, they announced they would cut two days of print and migrate readers to the e-edition.
The Daily Sentinel, Seaton said, looked for savings by reducing fixed costs including newsprint, manufacturing and press crews. The biggest savings came from not having to pay carriers for delivery on the two days.
“We continue to leak subscribers overall, but we have had a few months this year (in 2019) in which new subscribers exceed drops,” he said. That “tells us there is opportunity and interest.”
It really wasn’t on the radar, other than it was something that we all agreed we didn’t want to do. It wasn’t until our hand was forced that we decided this is something we need to look at seriously.
The Salisbury Post, a Boone Newspapers publication in North Carolina, eliminated Mondays and Saturdays last year. The threat of tariffs on Canadian newsprint and rising newsprint prices early in the year prompted the move, Publisher Greg Anderson said.
Even though the International Trade Commission overturned the tariffs, it became clear that higher prices were going to stick, Anderson said. The paper’s plan to reduce publishing days came together in a matter of months.
“We couldn’t gamble that prices would fall back,” he said. “When your second largest expense is going up 30 percent and newspaper revenue is flat at best, you’ve got to do something. Our choice was to preserve local content production. We’re producing the same amount of content. We just have two less days of print.”
Digital transition plans, Anderson said, are a work in progress.
In northern Nevada, the Sierra Nevada Media Group — which until recently was a cluster of Swift Communications papers — also moved rapidly to reduce publishing days. The group began planning the change in May 2018 and rolled it out about two months later. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City went from printing six days a week to publishing Wednesdays and Saturdays, while The Record-Courier went from three days to two and The Lahontan Valley News and Tahoe Daily Tribune both shrank to a single day.
The Nevada group’s reorganization eliminated 20 positions, and the smaller team now serves what is essentially a daily paper publishing under different mastheads each day, said Brooke Warner, the group’s former general manager and now a Swift consultant.
Each paper in the group is akin to a bureau putting out an edition on different days, and together they cover weekends and weekdays except Monday, she said. The overall amount of editorial content has remained the same, but is now in fewer, thicker papers.
In August 2019, Swift sold the Nevada Appeal, The Record-Courier, The Lahontan Valley News and Northern Nevada Business View to the Pacific Publishing Company. The group’s recently overhauled structure remains, Warner said.
The approach, she said, “allowed every single community to keep their paper.”
Planning to eliminate print publishing days
Planning the Change: Picking which print days to cut
A critical choice when reducing print publication frequency is selecting which days of the week to cut. The decision-making process may seem straightforward: eliminate the days with the least advertising. But the decision may be influenced by unique local factors such as sports coverage or local government meetings on certain days. Supporting specific advertiser needs may also play a role.
Typically, the three profitable days of Friday, Sunday and either Wednesday or Thursday pay for the weaker days.
“Historically, the two least profitable days have been Monday and Saturday,” said Penelope Abernathy of UNC. That makes those days the first to consider when cutting.
That was the experience at the Salisbury Post in North Carolina.
“Monday was kind of natural because we had the least amount of advertising on Monday and the least amount of breaking news,” Publisher Greg Anderson said. He said Monday and Saturday both lacked pre-print inserts, plus Saturday “was a day that we felt like we could move some content into Friday and some content into Sunday.”
One of the biggest newspapers to recently reduce publishing frequency was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which went from seven to five days in August 2018.
At the time, the Post-Gazette ended print publishing on Tuesdays and Saturdays and would “love to have killed Monday,” said Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, which owns the paper. He said Mondays were protected because on many Sundays the Pittsburgh Steelers play and not having that coverage in print on Mondays would be “a bad deal here.”
That protection, however, may have been temporary. In July, published reports said the Post-Gazette would soon be printed only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Block, speaking prior to those reports, said he expected more reductions at both the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, which eliminated two print days in February.
“I think we’re going to get down to one day during the week and one day on the weekend,” he said.
Publishing one weekday and one weekend day was the move made by the Ionia Sentinel-Standard in western Michigan, a much smaller newspaper serving an audience of 900 weekday subscribers. In February, the GateHouse Media paper moved from a five-day publishing schedule to printing just Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The move made sense, said Sarah Leach, editor for the group that includes the Sentinel-Standard. With a strong weekend edition, the paper had “the heart of a weekly but was operating as a daily,” she said.
Keeping Wednesday was, in part, to maintain print coverage of high school sports events on Tuesday nights, said Orestes Baez, Michigan group publisher for GateHouse. He said another reason was local government meetings that typically happen on Mondays or Tuesdays.
“We wanted to give ourselves an opportunity to keep an eye on public politics,” Baez said.
Planning the Change: Math, logistics and listening to the consumer
Successfully achieving savings when reducing publishing requires significant logistical and financial planning. The challenge involves press lines and crews, trucks and drivers, newsprint and ink, prepackaging, territory, single-copy sales, design staff and more. It also requires a series of assumptions and best guesses about the impact on content, advertising and subscriptions.
“There’s just a lot of math,” said Ken Herts of the Lenfest Institute. “If you’re in a press room, there’s people, there’s machines, there’s ink, there’s paper, there’s just stuff. And you just have to count the stuff to see how much money you’re going to save.”
Usually at a newspaper there’s “somebody who knows” all the truck routes and stops, somebody who knows what’s happening at the press, somebody who knows how the mailroom works, Herts said. But often “none of this stuff is organized and sorted in a way that makes it into the finance department. So the finance department is completely blind.”
“Until you do the math on what’s actually happening on an incremental basis, you don’t have a picture of what it’s going to save you,” Herts said. “The decision to stop printing on certain days hinges on how much of the current revenue can be maintained or switched to other days.”
Orestes Baez, Michigan group publisher for GateHouse, said that before making a frequency change, publishers need to look at production costs, newsprint savings, daily advertising revenue and the impact on subscriptions.
At the Ionia Sentinel-Standard in Michigan, “the majority of the revenue was already in the weekend. So really the revenue risk was fairly small,” Baez said.
Herts cautioned that there is a risk that “you can lose more revenue than you save. You’ve got to face that.”
The decision to stop printing on certain days hinges on how much of the current revenue can be maintained or switched to other days.
In North Carolina, the Salisbury Post planned to lose single-copy revenue for the print Mondays and Saturdays it eliminated, Publisher Greg Anderson said. So, he said, “we raised our single-copy rates at the same time and that offset any loss in volume.”
The Sierra Nevada Media Group also raised single-copy rates before the frequency change, expecting sales to decline, said Director of Finance Matthew Fisher. But the opposite happened.
“Our single-copy sales skyrocketed,” he said. “That was an unintended consequence because people were mad and they cancelled their subscription but they still want their paper.”
Philadelphia Inquirer Publisher Terry Egger said publishers should be cautious of cutting print days too soon.
“The key is the consumer will let you know when they’re done with the print product. Don’t prematurely yank it from them,” he said. “We need to continue to price the print product up until we hit a threshold where the consumer says no.”
To identify that moment, “you have to be clear on the profitability of every day of the week of your print publications,” Egger said. If you see you are getting “upside down” on certain days, he said, “you’re not getting nourishment anymore, and that’s the consumer telling you.”
The consumer will let you know when they’re done with the print product. Don’t prematurely yank it from them.
Publishers should also consider other ways to save instead of or alongside reducing publication frequency.
“Cutting territory can be just as powerful and effective as cutting days,” Herts said. He said there are savings “whether you eliminate days, you eliminate territories, you eliminate newsstands. All of these things may be different market to market.”
Planning the Change: Shifting ads to preserve revenue
A key question publishers must face is how to find homes for ads displaced by a reduction in print days. The answer may vary depending on ad category and the days involved.
“We looked at every single customer who had ads running on Saturday and Monday and every category and produced a plan to move them into other days,” said Greg Anderson of the Salisbury Post in North Carolina. This “category approach,” he said, was a crucial exercise that helped his team learn that some types of ads were more flexible than others.
“We wouldn’t lose a dime in public notices by having two (fewer) days, but Saturday real estate advertising — we needed to come up with a plan for that category to preserve that revenue,” Anderson said.
At the Greeley Tribune in Colorado, “we moved every advertiser — display or pre-print — to another day,” Publisher Bryce Jacobson said.
The paper eliminated Mondays and Tuesdays, which had few advertisers and zero inserts, he said. For the Thursday cut, advertisers were more than willing to move to the adjacent Wednesday or Friday.
“They didn’t really care,” Jacobson said. “What they were trying to do was to get ahead of the weekend with their message, whether it be a grocery sale or a retail sale.”
There are additional advertising concerns publishers must consider, Lenfest’s Ken Herts said. While many advertisers will just shift from one day to another after a cut in publication frequency, there might be losses from those that had paid for all seven days.
We looked at every single customer who had ads running on Saturday and Monday and produced a plan to move them into other days.
In some circumstances, Herts said, problems come from bad timing, such as when an advertiser says: “‘We’re having a sale on Monday because it’s Memorial Day and if you don’t have a Monday paper, you’re no good to me.’”
The Sierra Nevada Media Group’s multiple newspapers gave it flexibility to address advertiser concerns. Leading up to the reduction of days across the publications, the group knew it had “viable sustainability” to retain all of its papers and advertisers with a smaller, re-organized structure, Brooke Warner said.
“In terms of our customers, we’re at the level of the people who want us. And that’s pretty stable,” she said. “They want to be associated with our brands. They may not advertise three or four times a week — our data showed — but they advertise. So, we built the business to match that.”
Understanding the frequency and targeting of advertising also was important in deciding which days to eliminate across the family of Nevada publications.
“We started really simply: we have a stable of papers and advertisers, and we suspect most are buying one or two times a week,” Warner said. “Let’s look at the data and see what that implies for how often we should be publishing. The advertisers are probably already telling us what we should support.”
Warner said this combination of low-frequency advertisers allowed the media group to make “a schedule that worked for us.” The group asked advertisers to shift days when necessary and most were willing. When there were key accounts or verticals such as real estate where the day mattered, the group adjusted the publishing days it retained.
“So everybody basically got the day that they want,” she said.
Planning the Change: Deciding on subscription pricing for fewer print delivery days
Another major issue publishers must decide on is whether to maintain or change subscription rates. While many readers may shrug at fewer delivered editions, others will object to paying the same amount for less.
Ideally, newspapers should acclimate subscribers to fewer print days — and more digital options — by testing different offerings in advance of a frequency reduction, said Ken Herts of the Lenfest Institute.
“You’ve got to put these packages into the market and then get some data,” Herts said. “If you can maintain 100 percent of your subscription revenue while you cut days, you can come out better off.”
The Daily Sentinel in Colorado rolled out new subscription options as it reduced print days last year. Seaton and his team definitely did not take years to plan and test it.
“It was from the hip,” he said, “and we’re continuing to tinker.”
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.
Several publishers interviewed for this report chose to leave prices unchanged as they reduced print editions, despite expected subscriber complaints.
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.”
The message was similar for subscribers in Pittsburgh and Toledo, said Allan Block. “You’re going to have to get it the way we deliver it to you and the price is the same,” Block said. He added that since electronic delivery is more efficient than print it may mean fewer rate increases going forward.
We think rates deliver a value perception. When we kept dropping the rates on the spot to get people to sign up — which can sound like begging — our re-sign rates actually went down. It sounded like we didn’t value our product.
The Sierra Nevada Media Group initially left pricing alone for its paid publications as it cut days last year, but in April 2019 it launched a multi-pronged strategy to improve subscriptions at the Nevada Appeal, said Brooke Warner, the group’s former general manager. While publishing frequency had dropped from six days a week to two, the approach included raising the overall monthly rate.
Warner said the subscription strategy included:
- Making sure readers knew that, even with fewer publishing days, they were getting the same amount of news in print.
- Reminding readers they could also get content from the newspaper on the web and social media.
- Making sure the community understood the value of the newspaper continuing to exist.
- Improving the user experience for subscribers. That included more user-friendly sign-up forms and better messaging in print and online, such as shorter and more memorable website addresses.
- Reinforcing other aspects of newspaper value such as coupons that pay readers back with weekly savings worth two to three times the subscription cost.
- Providing more automatic billing options to decrease the likelihood of stops.
- Simplifying pricing with an all-access monthly rate of $14.99 that gives subscribers their paper everywhere, including print delivery, online and apps.
Prior to the change, the full retail monthly rate was $12.34, Warner said, but many discount programs over the years had pushed the average rate per subscriber down to $4 per month.
“New subscribers haven’t balked at the new rate. We think rates also deliver a value perception,” Warner said. “When we kept dropping the rates on the spot to get people to sign up — which can sound like begging — our re-sign rates actually went down. It sounded like we didn’t value our product.”
Even with the reduced print frequency, Warner said, subscription losses have now become “a trickle.”
Expecting pushback before and after reducing print days
Expecting Pushback: How to tell readers change is coming
Perhaps more than with any other issue, the publishers and newspaper leaders interviewed for this study agreed that communicating well with readers and advertisers is critical when eliminating print days. In fact, you cannot do too much to let people know the change is coming.
A community narrative forms when a local paper decides to eliminate publishing days. It is vital for a publisher to communicate openly and often to help shape that narrative in a positive and accurate way.
“There’re a lot of people out in the community who are willing to talk negatively about changes, especially on social media,” said Brooke Warner of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. “The thing that you can count on is that people do talk. So you always have to get in front of it. Help them understand why the changes are happening. You can’t let them frame it for you and you can’t do it after the fact.”
Publishers use various tactics, ranging from publishing articles, columns and ads to holding meetings with community and business leaders and one-on-one chats with subscribers. Even with all that, many readers, publishers told us, will still be surprised when their papers stop showing up in the morning.
Ninety days before the The State Journal in Kentucky eliminated its Monday edition last year, Publisher Steve Stewart met with business and elected community leaders and explained the change. Stewart said he told them, “Here’s what we’re going to do and here’s why we have to do it and here’s what it means to readers.”
“The strategy there was to reach your so-called ‘opinion shapers’ first so they weren’t blindsided by the news,” he said. That was followed by a public announcement two weeks before the reduction in the form of a front-page story and a series of columns.
“I talked more in-depth about the changing business model and why it was necessary,” Stewart said. Nonetheless, “after that, I would still get a phone call saying ‘Why are you doing this?’”
Jay Seaton at The Daily Sentinel in Colorado said he thought his team had gone above and beyond to inform readers. A month before the paper dropped print days, Seaton published a column about the change. Then his paper ran a house ad every day for 30 days. To teach people how to use the e-edition, the paper held seminars at libraries where readers brought their own devices. Members of the management team even visited subscribers in their homes.
“We really hustled,” Seaton said. “We really worked hard to try to get this to a place where people felt like they would be able to access it comfortably on whatever device they have.”
Despite that, he said, on the first day without a Monday print edition, the paper received 800 calls “every one of which said ‘I didn’t get my paper today.’” The same volume of calls came the next day when there was no Tuesday print edition.
That taught the Daily Sentinel team that many readers just didn’t see the print notices. Not all readers consume the paper cover to cover, Seaton said. Many read it just for the obituries or the crossword. “They don’t necessarily read it for the reasons we think they read it,” he said.
“If I were to do it over again — and the advice I give other publishers is — do a countdown on the front page, count down from 30 and have something every single day not just in house ads, but in articles and columns,” he said.
“It just wasn’t enough what we did, and we thought we’d overdone it,” Seaton said. “You can’t overdo it.”
Do a countdown on the front page, count down from 30 and have something every single day not just in house ads, but in articles and columns.
In Nevada, Warner said, her group’s team prepared messages for dissemination on social media, in ads and to be shared from the circulation team and their main office front desk.
“We started talking about the fact that we wanted to survive and the community wants us to survive,” she said. “While we as journalists and people who believe in newspapers would love to publish every single day — because it’s what we live for — we actually have to listen to what the community tells us, both in what they’ll support with subscriptions and what they’ll support with advertising.”
Warner said they also told readers “we actually have to take our bottom line into account as much as we take into account the service to the community, or we simply won’t exist at all.”
That message really resonated, she said. “In a town largely made up of small businesses, people really get that.”
Expecting Pushback: Knowing your readers and preparing for change
As with many of the choices around eliminating print days, the techniques around using audience research will vary from market to market. Knowing how your readers may react can help you craft your messaging, outreach, pricing and timing strategies. While some conducted new research, most of the publishers and newspapers interviewed said they tapped into existing data on their readers.
The State Journal in Kentucky held informal focus groups. The Ionia Sentinel-Standard in Michigan used existing research on subscriptions.
The Greeley Tribune had conducted surveys of reader habits for a long time before the frequency reduction, Jacobson said. Those helped cement the realization that the seven-day habit was over.
The basic questions that the Greeley Tribune asked included: “When was the last time you read the newspaper in the last seven days? How many newspapers have you read? Have you read the Monday paper in the last seven days?”
Before the paper eliminated days, Jacobson said, his team spent a lot of time with readers in informal one-on-one conversations.
The Sierra Nevada Media Group also used extensive existing data.
“The indicators were we could probably get away with this,” Brooke Warner said. She said the group also knew that change would make people angry, “so you might as well make the change that makes sense for you and explain it and stand by it. Because if you do less than that, and apologize, they will keep holding it against you.”
Expecting Pushback: Losing subscribers and winning them back
It is all but inevitable, publishers said, that many readers will be unhappy when print days are cut and some will cancel their subscriptions. But those readers may not be gone forever. It is possible, if you are diligent, to bring many of them back.
The State Journal in Kentucky estimates that it lost 1 percent of its subscribers in direct response to its cutting publication frequency, Steve Stewart said. Many of these were the “protest cancellations” made when people are upset. Then, a few weeks later, they quietly subscribed again.
The Sierra Nevada Media group had prepared to lose 20 percent of its subscribers after it restructured and cut print days across its four titles, Brooke Warner said. The actual number was closer to about 10 percent, she said.
“We’ve been really judicious about making sure that people talk about why they’re stopping when they stop,” Warner said.
She said they found that people cancelling tended to be the lowest-paying subscribers, indicating factors in the decision might be their ability to pay or their perception of decreased value — a value connected with the customer experience around delivery.
“The people who were with us had been with us and want us,” Warner said. “If they hadn’t been scared off at this point from all the ups and downs of the market and the changes in various ways, they would stick with us through this change.”
Cancellations around the time of a frequency reduction do not always indicate a cause and effect relationship.
“Like most newspapers in America we’ve had declining paid circulation for years,” Allan Block said of the Toledo and Pittsburgh papers. “That train hasn’t stopped, but the indications are it isn’t the killing of the days that’s done it.”
After the Greeley Tribune cut days in January, hundreds of calls flooded the paper’s phone lines, many of them emotional pleas from elderly readers saying “What am I going to do? (The paper) is the only reason I get up,” Bryce Jacobson said. He said some of his closest friends were upset and even his mom “was so mad at me.”
Fortunately, Jacobson said, he did a lot of explaining and his mom ultimately “got it just like most of these other people.” Cutting days, he said, is “just the right decision, but it is hard.”
In addition to hearing complaints, the paper lost 311 subscriptions leading up to the print reduction. While that was about half of the 5 percent loss expected, Jacobson said he has personally called most of those subscribers who cancelled.
“We’re all hands on deck getting some of those folks back,” he said. So far, he said, more than half of the cancelled subscribers have changed their minds and returned.
Expecting Pushback: Managing internal criticism
Another frequent source of skepticism and resistance when publishers eliminate print days — and one often underestimated — is from within a paper’s own organization. The pushback can come from staff and management, from the business side and the news side.
“I absolutely don’t worry about killing a day of print, but we have to fight our own people inside to convince them that we haven’t gone out of business on a Tuesday if we’re not printing,” Allan Block said. He said the attitude that print equals the business is “very prevalent” among all levels of staff, including management.
“Pro-print people who are not on board with what you want to do, what you have to do,” he said. “What is clear is doing nothing is a death sentence.”
While some newsrooms may easily accept a decline in print frequency, others may react negatively, especially if there are many longtime journalists with personal identities shaped by daily publishing.
People want to equate print frequency with journalism quality in ways that are just counterproductive.
At The Daily Sentinel in Colorado, the newsroom took the change hard and that was “totally unexpected,” said Sandra Rodgers, director of human resources.
Rodgers said she thought the newsroom would be the one department that wouldn’t have an issue with cutting days.
“For them, nothing was going to change. Their jobs are not going to change. Their hours wouldn’t change. They were still going to put out a paper seven days a week, just in a different form,” she said. “We expected more pushback from advertising salespeople who were going to have to sell online editions or production, who obviously were going to lose hours, therefore wages.”
But from its newsroom full of veteran journalists came questions like: “Can we no longer call ourselves The Daily Sentinel because we’re not putting out a print edition seven days a week?’”
“We made this change to preserve the newsroom as much as we possibly can,” Publisher Jay Seaton said. “So to have a sort of apoplectic response from some people in that department was really shocking.”
Newspaper teams cutting days should also brace for harsh media coverage, said Mark Lorando, former editor of NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune, which reduced delivery days in 2012.
“The way that the media has written about us and others who have tackled this issue has really done a disservice,” said Lorando, who is now editor-at-large for Advance Local. “There’s a lot of newspaper nostalgia that seeps into the reporting about this. People want to equate print frequency with journalism quality in ways that are just counterproductive.”
Expecting Pushback: Lessons from the New Orleans Times-Picayune
As newspapers embark on the path of reducing publishing days, their leaders often look for precedents and lessons from those that have gone before. The example that looms largest is the experience of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which most publishers and industry experts interviewed for this report cited as a cautionary tale.
About a decade ago, Advance Local newspapers began rolling out a digital-print strategy to two dozen markets in the biggest concerted effort to date to reduce delivery days. The strategy included reducing print days at papers such as the Times-Picayune, which in 2012 went to a three-day-a-week publishing schedule. Soon after, the paper restored a daily street edition while still home delivering just three days each week.
The move provoked community outrage and triggered competition from The Advocate of Baton Rouge, which launched a New Orleans spinoff.
In May 2019, Advance sold the 182-year-old Times-Picayune to the owners of the rival New Orleans Advocate.
Randy Siegel, chief executive of Advance Local, said the sale was a “one-off” and the company doesn’t intend to sell other papers, according to The New York Post.
A big lesson from New Orleans is that “even if a strategy is right, execution is absolutely key,” said news industry analyst Ken Doctor.
“The New Orleans case was they forgot that somebody could come in and take their business away,” he said.
For publishers reducing print days, Doctor said, the final lesson from New Orleans is that “if somebody has the chutzpah to move competitively into an area, (publishers) may be putting their businesses at risk.”
Steve Stewart, publisher of The State Journal in Kentucky, grew up north of New Orleans. He said he watched the situation there with fascination and learned from it before he eliminated his paper’s Monday edition last year.
“I thought going from seven to three days was too drastic,” he said. Stewart called the change a “significant disruption to reader habits.”
Ken Herts of the Lenfest Institute also sees the News Orleans experience as cautionary, particularly in the area of community outreach.
“The New Orleans paper was probably the worst case,” he said. “They cut with almost no warning. They did very little communication.”
That was a key lesson as the Advance strategy moved next to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, which in 2013 cut home delivery to four days a week but continued printing daily.
“We really studied what happened in New Orleans and tried to mitigate the community reaction to the decision when it was going to be announced in Cleveland,” said Terry Egger, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and former publisher of the Plain Dealer. “We had countless meetings with all the CEOs and the mayors and everyone else, bringing them in and talking about ‘Here’s what’s coming down the pike and here’s why and don’t overreact.’”
You can’t reduce print frequency and not, at the same time, commit your news operation to completely changing their culture to one that focuses on a multi-platform approach.
Mark Lorando, former editor of NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune, said the sale was particularly painful because it came just as the news operation reached its transformation goal and had become a “badass newsroom.”
“You can’t reduce print frequency and not, at the same time, commit your news operation to completely changing their culture to one that focuses on a multi-platform approach,” he said. “This past year, we had completely turned that ship. We were a dramatically different newsroom than the newsroom that we were in 2012.”
Despite the result, Lorando said he still supports Advance’s direction in scaling back print.
“It’s absolutely the right philosophy: point your news organization in the direction of the audience growth,” he said, soon after the news of the sale. “Our mistakes involved timing and execution.”
The team at The Times-Picayune knew that, as one of the first to reduce frequency, there would be mistakes, Lorando said. But “we felt that the danger of waiting was greater than the danger of going early.”
One surprise was that other newspapers did not follow their lead in larger numbers, generating more case studies and best practices, Lorando said. “We ended up being out there by ourselves, trying to figure this out, for much longer than any of us thought we would be.”
Improving digital in the shift away from print
Better Digital: Embracing data-based content and distribution strategies
Unless a newspaper’s goal is to fade into oblivion, reducing print must be accompanied by investment in better digital experiences for readers. Just cutting print publishing days alone is not movement toward the future. Newspapers must embrace using data to understand their audiences and the effectiveness of their own workflows. And to survive and thrive, newspapers must meet audiences where they are. That place is on digital platforms, especially smartphones.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital success and every market finds its own approach, the foundation is built on a better understanding of the audience and a deeper use of analytics.
At the Greeley Tribune, where the mantra is “digital first, print better,” staff members embraced data, Publisher Bryce Jacobson said.
“We analyze more. We look at data more. I don’t want to remove the gut, but I want to minimize the gut in our content creation strategies,” he said.
Jacobson said the paper’s reorganization included building a content creation department and a separate group focused on engagement.
The approach “gives the old editor title — the director of content — time to focus on creating content,” he said. “The director of engagement is focused on what to do with the stuff that they created — whether the reporter should put it up right away on this (platform), which audience segment is it going towards, and how are we measuring whether or not that works.”
The tactics are revisited every couple of days so we can be “learning from every single thing that we do,” he said.
Some tactics after a publishing reduction help newspapers move away from old print cycles and schedules that are less relevant to modern readers.
Even before The State Journal in Kentucky cut its Monday print edition, the team there worked to transition print subscribers to digital. After the reduction, the focus on web and email has grown.
“We stepped up productivity requirements of our journalists over the weekend because we wanted to offer a really robust digital offering during that print dark period,” Stewart said. For Mondays, the newsroom delivers email newsletters and electronic versions of the puzzles, comics and entertainment pages.
“Assuming you’re willing to consume certain content digitally,” he said, “you didn’t miss anything.”
While the overall focus on digital is important, that doesn’t mean just desktop, said Ken Doctor, the news industry analyst.
“You have got to have a state-of-the-art, compelling, attractive mobile news product, and I believe it needs to be an app and not just a mobile browser,” he said. “It’s got to have enough of a newsroom behind it that there’s a reason for people to use it.”
The critical focus on mobile is simply a matter of numbers, Doctor said.
“If 65 percent of the audience is on mobile phones,” he said, “you don’t concentrate your business on the 10 percent that refuse to use mobile phones.”
Better Digital: Opportunities to create new products while cutting print
As much as reducing print publishing days is about losing something, it is also an opportunity to build, to embrace new products and technologies. As publishers pursue cutting days, they will find gaps and disruptions in the ways they traditionally interact with audiences and advertisers. It is at these junctures where innovative thinking is needed.
At The Daily Sentinel in Colorado, cutting days created a challenge with the print classified ads people would buy for a full week, Publisher Jay Seaton said. This quandary offered an opportunity to make something new: e-edition classified ads.
“We can offer them at a lower cost. We can offer a full page ad. We can offer ads that would otherwise appear as pre-prints but they appear on the e-edition as individual pages between sections,” he said. “We’re selling that almost like a different product.”
The ads, which run between pages of the e-edition, caused an initial bump in sales that then waned, likely because of issues with sales management, Seaton said. He said he hopes to pump those sales back up.
Across Colorado at the Greeley Tribune, the team turned to email newsletters to address another area disrupted by cutting print days: obituaries.
“We have very loyal obit readers and we knew that it would be a big complaint that they don’t get obits on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday,” said Shana Fisher, the marketing director.
The new daily obit newsletter has more than 1,000 subscribers with a 50 percent open rate, the highest at the paper, Fisher said.
Better Digital: The debate over e-editions and digital replicas
E-editions or digital replicas of print newspapers are a common tool used by publishers to fill the gap left by reduced print days. Some papers direct readers to e-editions when home delivery or print publishing stops. And some publishers find e-editions enormously popular with vocal minorities of current readers.
“It helps to preserve an older revenue stream,” said news industry analyst Ken Doctor. “E-editions clearly work for a relatively small but significant part of an older population that wants the print format and may want it for another 10 years.”
However, there is debate about whether e-editions and digital replicas are always a good fit to replace cut print days. While the newspaper-like experience of e-editions is a draw for some readers, the newsroom resources needed to create an e-edition are identical to those needed for producing the print paper. Those resources could instead be invested in better news coverage and digital products.
In the end, the e-edition is often viewed as a transitional product. It’s up to each publisher to decide whether it is worth the effort.
The team at the Salisbury Post in North Carolina discussed putting out an e-edition on the printless days of Monday and Saturday, but decided against it.
“We 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,” said Publisher Greg Anderson.
The Greeley Tribune in Colorado has an e-edition, but it also does not produce it when there is no print newspaper. On the printless days of Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the e-edition is just the comics page.
In addition to saving the time and effort of producing and laying out a paper with no print edition, foregoing an e-edition on non-print days helps support the experience of print news readers during the rest of the week, Publisher Bryce Jacobson said. He said an e-edition would exhaust content intended for print later.
“We 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.”
“All of that news that was created and disseminated on Monday and Tuesday is in the Wednesday paper,” he said.
Allan Block of Block Communications spoke strongly against most e-editions. He believes the industry as a whole is handling them wrong.
“The software that’s been used by the industry is such a bad experience that it might as well not exist at all,” he said.
But not everyone is against e-editions.
The Daily Sentinel in Colorado produced e-editions on its days without print and made its e-edition free for nearly two months after it cut print frequency.
“We wanted to get people comfortable accessing it and realizing it’s a pretty good product and a good way to consume your daily newspaper,” Seaton said.
Since then, a few hundred subscribers have stopped print subscriptions in favor of an “e-only version,” he said.
“Many who told us expressly they would never read the newspaper on a device now no longer want the print product,” Seaton said. “We’re hoping to turn that into thousands of subscribers.”
Seaton noted that Daily Sentinel readers skew older and the e-edition helps connect with an audience uncomfortable with other technologies.
Around the time of the print reduction, “almost 100 percent of our calls were from people over the age of 70,” he said.
Seaton said these callers would say: “The world has passed me by. I can’t buy a plane ticket anymore. I have to go online so I have to have my kids do it. I can’t get information that other people get on the internet. I don’t do email. I don’t have a computer. I don’t want a computer. And the newspaper was one of the things that was still catering to me, something that I could access and be part of and you’re taking that away from me now, too.”
Seaton said he bought a couple of Kindle Fire tablets and showed a handful of readers — two of whom had never used a computer — how to access the e-edition.
E-editions clearly work for a relatively small but significant part of an older population that wants the print format and may want it for another 10 years.
“It can be a positive, life-changing experience,” he said, “but it’s also crushing for so many people.”
One newspaper betting in a big way on digital replicas is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has distributed more than 10,000 iPads to subscribers in a move to convert print subscribers to digital, the paper reported. Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. has sent teams across the state to teach subscribers how to read the newspaper on a tablet.
The goal is to cease print publication except for Sundays by the end of the year, Hussman told the Democrat-Gazette. The paper needs to convert 70 percent of subscribers from print to digital to make the plan profitable, Hussman said.
“It may not work,” Hussman told his paper. “It’s a risk, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take. We want to remain a viable journalistic enterprise in Arkansas and we don’t see any other way to do it.”
Analyst Ken Doctor said he was skeptical of efforts to deploy tablets as a newspaper replacement. He said getting a tablet into readers’ hands is not a “gating issue.”
“It is a good reading format, but it’s not a kind of panacea,” Doctor said, adding that the focus should be on the smaller mobile screens that attract the biggest audience. “You have got to create a compelling smartphone experience that gets people what they want.”
Better Digital: Sustaining the commitment to local coverage
Many of the newspaper leaders interviewed echoed Ken Herts in saying that the ultimate goal of cutting print is sustaining a news operation in a digital future. For them, reducing print publishing frees up both money and time that allows for better journalism and a greater focus on local coverage.
“Our enterprise reporting has gotten a little better with one less day to feed the beast that is a print edition,” said Steve Stewart, publisher of The State Journal in Kentucky.
Stewart said that by freeing up time from putting together just one day’s paper “we can direct that mental energy into our digital future — figuring out what kind of content is going to drive up a value proposition for a prospective digital subscriber.”
Our enterprise reporting has gotten a little better with one less day to feed the beast that is a print edition.
Answering those kinds of questions and finding ways to reach digital audiences with the right content is critical to a newspaper’s future, analyst Ken Doctor said.
“How are we engaging the great audiences that are out there? Do we have sufficient unique content to offer them? And are we delivering it in a way that makes sense to that audience largely through the mobile phone?” he said. “Unless you can answer that question your movement to cut days of the week is not going to be successful.”
While newspapers reducing publishing days should bolster digital content operations, they must also be wary of cutting away at their own competencies and core mission.
“The goal should be to preserve local journalism, not to protect print frequency,” said Mark Lorando, the former editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
Publishers should not be afraid to start reducing frequency “before reducing the number of journalists covering the community,” Lorando said. “Newspapers should be part of an overall multi-platform business strategy, not a sacred cow.”
As the Ionia Sentinel-Standard cut days, the newspaper “made a commitment to add more local content and so the paper is actually more robust with local content even though the frequency is less,” said Orestes Baez, Michigan group publisher for GateHouse.
For newspapers that have gone through a publishing reduction and fundamental restructuring to content operations, there is a common truth: Transformation is hard — very hard.
At the Sierra Nevada Media Group, the move to eliminate print days and overhaul the organization caused shock in its newsrooms even with plenty of transparency and warning about the change, said Adam Trumble, editor of the Nevada Appeal. While the transition was difficult, Trumble said, it was important to look forward.
“We took the approach of ‘Let’s build something healthy and sustainable for 10 or 15 years. Not something that gets us through to the end of the year and we have to re-evaluate,’” Trumble said. “Hard as it was, the decision put us where we are now. We can move on and focus on becoming better and work on the content.”
Bryce Jacobson of the Greeley Tribune in Colorado said that even amidst difficult change and transformation, the “mission of our company is to connect communities.”
“We completely changed the way we create content, the way we disseminate content,” Jacobson said. “We’re getting there.”
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