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.

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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.”

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