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.”

[pulldata context=”Newspapers must build a digital business before print is slashed.”]

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.”

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