Circulation Future of news Subscriptions

Darrell Royal was right, and newspapers should pay attention

Darrell Royal was famous for his formula for winning football:  You gotta dance with the one what brung you.  In football, you have to keep doing what made you good in the first place. If you were undefeated by running the ball, you keep running it in the playoffs.

And that concept works for newspapers, too.

The doom-and-gloom crowd always focus on the “paper” part of the newspaper compound.  Paper is a dying medium, they say.  And they may be right.  But if we’re going to succeed, we have to focus on the first part of that compound – the one what brung us.  And that is news.

Newspapers aren’t popular because they’re printed on paper. They grew to popularity because they gave people the news they wanted.  Local events.  Names. Faces. Calendars. Sports. Opinion. Pictures. Information.

And guess what?  Scholarly research confirms what we have always known.  A Northwestern University study last year showed that regular reader habit and strong coverage of local news were the key factors in keeping subscribers.  But they wondered … was that also true for small news outlets?

So they did a follow-up study on 12 small news outlets.  Not surprisingly, they found that the same local news emphasis that causes people to read metros also sends them to your newspaper.

One of the things they found was that the more frequently subscribers connect with you, the more likely they are to hold on to their subscription. Large newspapers realize that even publishing daily isn’t enough, so they have rolled out a number of newsletters to make their brand more valuable for readers.

The takeaway for community newspapers: We have a hot commodity – news.  But we can’t just deliver that on paper once a week.  We have to be the go-to medium for news in the community every day.  At TCCJ, we used to say that you could be a weekly in print but you had to be a daily online.  That seems short-sighted now.  We can’t just put news up daily on our website – we have to use social media and newsletters to get that news in front of our readers.

Websites assume that readers come to them.  But social media and newsletters don’t wait for readers to come to them – they go to the readers.

We still have a commodity readers want.  We just have to get the news – branded with our name – in front of readers, and do it more often.


Could free distribution be an option for community newspapers?

Here is a common scenario, using a fictitious newspaper as an example.

The Belleville Bugle is a high-quality weekly that has served its community for more than 100 years.

The town the Bugle serves is prosperous. Households have more than doubled over the past 30 years. There is new industry. Belleville is also a bedroom community as many residents commute to and from their jobs in a nearby metropolitan area.

In 1987, there were 5,000 homes in Belleville and the Bugle’s local circulation was 3,800, or 76 percent household penetration.

In 2017, there are 12,000 homes in Belleville and the Bugle’s local circulation is 3,000, or 25 precent household penetration.

Why the loss in local circulation and the even more shocking loss in household penetration?

We can cite all kinds of trends but by far the number one reason is the influx of “exurbanites” – very busy people who live in a community but don’t identify with it. And people who don’t care about the town they live in don’t subscribe to their local newspaper.

Intense circulation campaigns can help somewhat – maybe a few hundred additional subscribers. But that’s it.

It’s frustrating for the newspaper owners and staff who know the Bugle needs to reach more local homes to serve its advertisers and for the good of the community itself, which needs the newspaper to retain or even rebuild its identity.

The Bugle can’t do that unless it reaches residents. But it’s obvious that the days of 75 percent or even 50 percent paid household penetration are long gone.

Is there a solution?

One possibility deserving of serious consideration is a conversion from paid circulation to free distribution, effectively going from 25 percent household penetration to 100 percent — or near it — instantaneously.

It’s a huge decision that requires careful study, keeping in mind that once the move from paid circulation to free distribution is implemented, it would be almost impossible to revert back to paid.

The key is to prepare a financial analysis that takes into account the total loss of circulation revenue versus the gain in advertising revenue; as well as the printing and delivery expense for a free product.

Keep in mind there will have to be guesswork when it comes to projecting advertising revenue. Be conservative, but don’t be timid either.

Expense estimates for printing and delivery will be more definite.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind if you decide to take on this analysis.

  • ●Usually, there are no staff changes.
  • ●Ad rates will have to go up, of course. Typical would be around $1 per column inch or more per 1,000 additional distribution. For example, let’s say the Bugle averaged $6 per column inch as a 4,000 circulation paid weekly. As a free weekly, distribution will be 14,000, a 10,000 increase so add an average of $10 per column inch to the advertising rates.
  • ●Per piece insert rates usually stay the same, but the increased volume (i.e. 3,000 to 12,000 local) is a major revenue booster.
  • ●Are legal ads a major source of revenue? Would they be jeopardized if the paper converted from paid circulation to free distribution? Check with the state press association.
  • ●How would the free paper be distributed and how much will it cost?

Rack distribution – inexpensive but unpredictable.

Standard mail –pricy for heavy publications.

Requester mail – inexpensive but complex regulations.

Carrier force – direct control, but complicated.

I wish there were a mathematical formula that would give management an absolute answer as the financial consequences of this dramatic change. Those consequences could be an absolute delight. They could be an absolute disaster.

I won’t kid you – there is an unavoidable gamble-factor, and to better determine the odds the all-critical advertising revenue estimate is the card that really counts.

Research will help the odds, including plenty of input from current advertisers. But it will also require guesstimates that are part educated and part instinctual, made by staff who not only know the market but feel its tendencies and potential, or lack thereof.

Circulation Community Journalism

The readers we have vs. the readers we want: a circulation dilemma

One of the dilemmas faced by any medium is the extent to which journalists give readers what they want – no matter what that is.

So do we cater to the needs of the readers we have, or do we try to include content that reaches the readers we want?  And if we do that, what if the readers we want never see the content we included to reach them?

Obviously, there are no easy answers.  And newspapers aren’t alone in wrestling with this.  There are movies that win awards and movies that draw huge box office – and often those are two different kinds of movies.  The questions that must be answered:  Do we give our audience what it wants or what we think it needs?  And do we cater to our current audience or the one we’re trying to reach?

We had a note this week from Rick Craig of the Hood County News.  We applaud the News for trying to find some answers in light of a recent readership study.  Here’s what Rick wrote:

We recently completed a readership survey. We polled current subscribers and past subscribers that did not renew their subscription to our twice-weekly community newspaper. One thing that came from the survey is that our readers (both past and present) do not care much for sports, school district news or news about school activities. This is understandable since more than 73 percent of those responding to the survey are age 55-plus.

 This leads to the question that I am sure is being asked in many newspapers: Do we continue or increase the school news and sports in our paper to attract the parents of those participating in these events? Or do we cut back on those areas and focus on the areas that have a greater impact on our current readers?

 If we cut back on the news for parents with school-age children, are we giving up on acquiring younger readers to replace our older one?

Rick asked that we share the questions they are wrestling with at the News, and solicit input from other Texas newspapers.  You may not have done the survey, but as our readership ages, we all probably have similar issues.

Have you made significant adjustments to your content to appeal to a certain demographic?

And perhaps most important, what are you doing to reach younger readers?

Business of News Circulation Cool tool

Newsletters are hot, and they can be a great tool for community newspapers

Newsletters are one of the oldest forms of communication in journalism. They even pre-date newspapers, with the first newsletter coming out in 1538.  The first American newspaper to publish a second edition started its life as the Boston News-letter.

They have increased and decreased in popularity over the years, but everything that’s old is indeed new again.

Newsletters are hot.

And why should an old medium be experiencing such a resurgence in a digital age?  Perhaps because we’re inundated with news and information from every side. Newsletters can help make sense of all that because they digest what’s important and let us choose whether or not to read it. And they give us an email foot-in-the-door of busy readers.

In its current incarnation, a newspaper newsletter is like the menu screen on Netflix.  When you go to Netflix, you see movies categorized by genre and popularity.  Then you see thumbnail pictures and just a sentence of explanation telling what the movie is about.  You can surf through to something else, or, if you’re interested, click on that thumbnail to get the movie itself.

There’s no single type of newsletter used in newspapers.  The popular Washington Post newsletters give you a headline, a photo, and a teaser.  You can then click to go to the article on the Post website.  Actually, there’s not just one – the Post offers newsletters on news, opinions, the federal government, home and garden, education, lifestyle, business and tech, sports, science – there is even a newsletter called The Optimist with stories to inspire you. And there’s more that we didn’t list.

They’re right there in your inbox, waiting for you to scan them in the viewing pane, click on what you’re interested in, and head off to the WaPo site – even if all you had planned to do was to read your email.

And as you’d expect, The New York Times offers the same service.

Both papers sell ads in their newsletters, so the newsletters themselves are a revenue source.

Some community papers in Texas have effective daily newsletters:  For example, see the Texas Gatehouse newspapers, the Hood County News, the Wise County Messenger, Community Impact newspapers and the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post.

Why are newsletters so popular for newspapers that already have print and online editions, websites and social media feeds? Because they meet readers where readers are sure to go every day:  their email in-box.  You don’t have to pick up a newspaper or go to a homepage.  All you do is check your email and there is the newsletter, viewable in your preview pane.  See something you are interested in?  Click, and it takes you to the paper’s website.

Publishers want to know, How can I monetize an email newsletter? Of course, this is another product you can sell ads for, and potentially a really attractive ad vehicle for businesses because it appears in the in-box of a wide variety of readers. But also, in an era when we’re all competing for attention and we want to establish ourselves as a go-to news source, newsletters are an in-your-face announcement every day or several times a week that our newspaper is the indispensable source of news for this county.

Once you get your template set up, newsletters don’t take that long to produce daily – after all, you’re just linking to the news you’ve already written.  And you can even use the same lead you have on the story, then link to the rest on your website.

As for the distribution, there are lots of mail management programs out there.  This site overviews what’s available.  If you’re looking for someplace to start with no initial investment, we recommend MailChimp.

Interested in looking into the world of newsletters?  Start out by finding a few (you can find links to some Texas community papers’ newsletters above).  Then subscribe.  They’re all free.  You’ll get newsletters in your inbox and just look them over to get a feel for what these papers are doing.  After a couple of weeks, you’ll have a vision for how you can reach new readers with newsletters and you can get yours started.

You can thank us later.


Circulation Community Journalism

Survey says: Readers love their community newspapers

So now the readers of NNA’s latest survey know what any community journalists have always known: Our readers think we’re doing a good job and almost three-quarters of them read us regularly.

What other industry can make such claims? Three-quarters of the people who live in towns served by community papers don’t shop regularly at Wal Mart or watch the same TV show or listen to the same music. But the latest Community Newspaper Readership Study by the National Newspaper Association and The Reynolds Journalism Institute indicates that a whopping 73 percent of residents in small towns and cities read local newspapers from one day to seven days a week. And more than two-thirds (78 percent) read most to all of the contents.
And there was even more good news in the survey: 80 percent consider local newspapers their primary news source; they prefer their community paper because it focuses on local news; and three-quarters say they look forward to reading their local newspaper.

What about other media? Eat your heart out, television – 50 percent chose newspapers for local news as opposed to 16.3 percent for TV and 6.7 percent for radio.

You can read a digest of the survey at the website of the Reynolds Journalism Institute (first link), or, if you’re a member of the National Newspaper Association, you can access the complete report that the NNA website (second link).


Small daily in Oklahoma defies circulation trends

We’re in the middle of a recession and unemployment is up and circulation is down.  But in Claremore, Okla., one small daily’s circulation is up almost 10 percent.  Publisher Bailey Dabney of the Claremore Daily Progress thinks lots of newspapers have lost circulation because they expect to do so. Here’s a quote from the article:  “Dabney said a common misconception from naysayers is that the public isn’t interested in newspapers, but he doesn’t take that seriously. ‘If you want to buy into the notion that nobody reads newspapers anymore, get a DUI,’ he said. ‘And see how many people call your momma wanting to know what it in the world is going on in your life that would have you get a DUI. It is just incredible the number of people that see everything in the newspaper.’”


Readers share their papers with more than two additional readers

A new National Newspaper Association survey has yielded some results that will be useful for advertising salespeople who are selling the value of a community newspaper ad buy. Here are the stats you will want to pass along to your salespeople:
– On average, readers share their paper with 2.36 additional readers.
– Nearly 40 percent keep their community newspaper more than a week.
– Three-quarters of readers read local news “often to very often” in their community newspaper.
– Among those going online for local news, 63 percent found it on the local newspaper’s website, compared to 17 percent for sites such as Yahoo, MSN or Google, and 12 percent from the website of a local television station.
– 60 percent read local education news “somewhat to very often” in their newspaper, while 65 percent never read local education news online.
– And finally, something to brighten the day of everyone in your ad department: 47 percent say there are days they read the newspaper as much for the ads as for the news.
And in other survey news, community newspapers experienced a slight decline in circulation volume in the second quarter of this year compared to the first quarter, down about 2 percent as a group, according to the latest audit data from Circulation Verification Council.
The CVC survey said 45 percent of community newspaper publishers reported that circulation increased, with the heaviest declines in the Southeast.


Something for your ad sales reps

Check out this handout from NAA that details what the organization considers 10 truths about newspaper circulation. The interpretation of some of their points will be debated, but this one-page handout will make a great addition to advertising pitch books — it basically gives the reasons why newspapers are still a great buy for advertisers, print and online.


Audit Bureau of Circulations creating service for community newspapers

Editor & Publisher reports that the Audit Bureau of Circulations will begin offering a new service for community newspapers, assuming the ABC board officially approves it. The new service is expected to appeal to community newspaper publishers with lower rates and a simplified auditing process.