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.”

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