Thursday, October 09, 2008

A way to stay alive on weak ad days

With desperate times demanding desperate measures, a growing number of newspapers are considering the most desperate measure of all: Skipping print editions on the days of the week when ad sales are the weakest.

It already has happened in McPherson, KS; Mesa, AZ; Gilroy, CA, and Cambridge, MD, according to Peter Zollman, who has been tracking the trend at Advanced Interactive Media Group (formerly Classified Intelligence).

Still, I was surprised to get a call recently from someone at a large metropolitan newspaper, who asked if I thought canceling the Monday edition would be a good idea.

“Well, it’s an idea,” I responded. “And it may prove to be the best one you come up with. But how about trying something less drastic, more creative and potentially far more profitable?”

“Like what?”

“Like turning the paper into a themed edition aimed at a carefully targeted audience of untapped readers and advertisers,” I responded.

Here’s my alternative to scrapping the Monday paper, eliminating the Tuesday paper, canning the Wednesday paper, dropping the Thursday paper and, well, you get the idea:

In a major market like the city where my friend works, the population is fixated on the ups and downs of the professional and college sports teams that are active throughout the year. Sports are of particular interest for young men who typically are not newspaper readers but could be captured as a valuable and desirable anew udience by the following multimedia platform:

:: A fan website, where visitors would be encouraged to voice their opinions about the teams through a full range of multimedia self-publishing tools. It would include diaries from local players, blogs, fantasy leagues and such viral features as video and music mashups. To build buzz rapidly, the newspaper might partner with the leading sports-talk radio station or top television sportscaster in town.

:: Turning the Monday paper from an ordinary broadsheet into a free-distribution tabloid, featuring not only the newspaper’s best staff-written sports coverage but also the cream of the user-generated content from the website. (A sufficient ration of other news should be carried in the paper to satisfy sports illiterates like me.)

:: A mobile alert service to flash sports scores and headlines to subscribers 24/7, while reminding them to pick up the paper, contribute to the website and patronize the participating advertisers.

The above products would provide a seamless, cross-media solution for marketers trying to reach a liberal-spending but hard-to-reach audience known to consume such products as beer, cars, clothes, computers, electronics, gaming services, insurance, mobile phones, travel, athletic equipment and almost every form of entertainment. Not only would the suite of sports products create a rich marketplace, but also many of the readers and advertisers would be newfound readers and advertisers.

Newspapers have what it takes to make it happen.

They employ large staffs of content-production specialists, possess large printing plants, operate major websites, maintain comprehensive distribution systems and support the largest local sales organization of any media company operating in their respective markets. Further, the print and online media they already produce provide thousands, if not millions, of essentially free impressions each week to market the new sports products.

Although some additional upfront costs would be associated with launching the new sports media, the outlay makes a lot more sense than eliminating publication on certain days of the week, because skipping days won’t reduce the bulk of the formidable, fixed costs involved in running a newspaper company.

Even if scrapping the Monday paper saved a day’s worth of newsprint, ink, fuel and staffing, most papers still have to sustain the physical and personnel infrastructure they already have in place to support seven-day production. Regardless of whether a paper was published six days a week or seven, it would have the same expenses for rent, insurance and leases on its equipment and fleet. It’s also safe to assume that full-time newspaper employees would not willingly forfeit a seventh of their pay.

Even if a newspaper saved enough money to justify not publishing on Monday, how does this radical cost-cutting strategy solve the industry’s over-arching problem: Shrinking sales.

No company can cut its way to prosperity when its revenue base is contracting, as it has been for newspapers since 2006. Instead of asking ad departments to extract seven days worth of revenue from six days of publication, doesn’t it maker more sense to give the ad staff more (and better-targeted) products to sell to a wider range of advertisers?

There’s no reason to stop with just a sports paper on Monday.

The newspapers that have created “Mom” websites need to robustly expand and vigorously market these initiatives as full cross-media solutions for readers and advertisers alike. One day of the week could be turned into a themed edition emphasizing stories – and advertising – associated with family life, education, dining, fitness and other topics of interest to both working and stay-at-home moms.

Other themed days of the week could be built around the key classified categories. And so forth.

The Boston Globe recently announced plans to publish a weekly sports tabloid that will be produced every Thursday and cost 50 cents a copy. This is not as radical as turning the Monday paper into a free sports tab. And maybe the less-radical approach is a better idea.

Let's hope the Boston venture encourages other revenue-starved publishers to think about doing something more creative than going dark on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and, well, you get the idea.

15 Comments:

Blogger Tim Windsor said...

Alan,

This is creative thinking and just might work. The biggest obstacle I see is that the one-off approach on Monday is a hard story to tell to the marketplace if you don't have a ton of money to spend on advertising. Those consumer habit-creatures are hard to change.

But it certainly beats just giving up. Especially on Monday which always struck me as a lost opportunity. In online, Monday was always the strongest day of the week. People clearly are interested in news and information on Monday; the low print circ numbers should prompt experimentation, not surrender.

Here's another idea:

The further I get from the day-to-day operation of a major metro (six weeks now), the more I believe that the "crazy" idea I kept floating internally makes a whole lot of sense: make single copies free.

You still charge for home delivery - for now at least - because that's a service, but you take the locks off all the street boxes and double down on the quantities. With no friction on pickup, readership is almost certain to rise substantially.

The cost is newsprint and the lost single-copy revenue, which in most American cities, is a small slice of the incoming cash. The reward is more readers and more ad revenue, both better than gold in the current environment.

The objection to this idea goes like this: "This can't work with the ABC audit."

Which makes me think that what's stopping this kind of experimentation isn't a lack of imagination at newspapers, but a lack of cooperation and vision at ABC.

What do you think?

4:20 AM  
Anonymous NPinsider said...

I've often wondered if the weakness on Monday was a self fulfilling prophecy. What I mean by that is sales people usually push advertisers into either Thursday Friday or Sunday since that's what they've done for ever.
Readership is down for certain on monday, but is that related to staffing as well? What person want to work Sunday night if they can avoid it. In the old tidy newspaper world, you could start your "big story" when you got into the office on monday, and finish it in time for the end of the week, or at worst the weekend. Also a nicely reinforcing property.
I like the idea of pushing out a sports themed paper on monday - especially during football season.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, wake up. We are in the days of the Internet. So why not publish a Web-only Monday paper, and the dead tree product the rest of the week. Monday papers always struck me as an afterthought. Not much fresh happens on Sundays, and Monday papers tend to be filled with left-over features. As a reporter, I loved writing for Mondays because they had the space for whatever I produced. I also would note the Examiner newspapers now are publishing only Thursdays and Sundays, leaving the other papers to the Web. I do not believe the Examiners have long-term prospects, but someone obviously believes there is money to be made in this model.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Curt Chandler, Penn State University said...

I like many of the ideas offered here, but I think the discussion may be missing a broader point. Too much print content is dictated by what it is convenient to publish. Don't believe me? Try to find the breadth and depth of event coverage in a Sunday paper that you'd find if the same events had happened at mid-week, when more reporters are around to provide coverage and more space is available to publish the stories. For years newspapers have been missing the boat. Their readers work and go to school during the week, then follow their passions all weekend. Newspapers preview the weekend events, but hardly provide the same space or resources to follow them up. When a skeleton staff covers the bare minimum on Sunday, we're surprised that readers don't need us on Monday? That they think we're disconnected from their lives? The weekend is when news organizations should be harnessing their resources as reporters and editors, along with actively encouraging reader contributors, to build a robust product that reflects how we live.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Davisull said...

First, there hasn't been a daily in Ocean City since the 1940s, and the paper in Noblesville just disappeared entirely -- but that is to quibble. The Mississippi Press is now four days a week, the paper in Fallon, Nev., cut back to two. So the trend is there.

Gee, was it that long ago when, facing the problem of unprofitable Saturdays, papers such as the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Allentown Morning Call rethought their Saturday papers, making them tabloids with more space, relatively speaking, for weekend activities and high school sports, in the view that the Saturday reader was looking for something different?

Actually, it was that long ago. Probably two decades. But we used to be able to think like this.

What happened? Oh, the usual suspects -- a focus on the short-term bottom line, which meant any change had to be immediately monetizable; a belief that if print was dead anyway, what was the point in changing it; top editors who stopped looking at the newspaper as a product customers bought for many uses and saw it just as a budget of metro and project stories; the enormous profitablility of newspapers in the 1980s, which made further innovation unnecessary; and the now 25-years-old belief that any change simply makes any paper more like USA Today (i.e. less aimed at elites).

Whatever. Giving up on days makes no sense in terms of getting people to buy newspapers ("Is there one today? I can't bloody well remember. Well, who cares"). Having a product that reflects different needs on different days probably does, as long as whatever advertisers are left aren't scared away. But it does mean Monday has to not be "whatever we didn't get in Sunday," which at many papers is its major function. Which again means one has to be far more disciplined in story assignment, section booking, and the like than most newspaper people have any desire to be.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is just a real smart line of thinking. Media is no longer mass. It's niche. One of the first rules of media/marketing is know your audience. Another one is that your audience can't be everyone. Newspapers need to realize that and begin to niche and focus. The days of getting national and international news from a local paper are over. Deal with it and move on or die.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous SEO Services said...

Nice Post. Thanks for sharing.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Alan Jacobson said...

Here's my strategy for saving the Monday newspaper:

http://www.brasstacksdesign.com/save_monday_edition.htm

7:35 AM  
Blogger Rich Pearson said...

Very smart and certainly testable. It would also be interesting to create editions that leverage other known consumer/company behaviors - paydays on the 15th and 30th, end of quarter, end of month, etc.

I remain flabbergasted that locals paper don't own Cal, Stanford, 49er, Raider coverage; instead the AP still has the most in-depth coverage

7:42 AM  
Anonymous I'm not as dumb as thinkle peep I am. said...

I think commenter davisull has a good point with this line: "a focus on the short-term bottom line, which meant any change had to be immediately monetizable". I think that most newspaper PTBs have a maddenly myopic focus on only that which can be quantified in Excel and graphs.

There are few good idea people in the industry anymore. It's primarily bean counters and accountants. All the good idea people left back when being a newspaper person quit being fun and started being a drag. The good idea people who are left have their weakening voices drowned out by the bean counters who are moaning about declining revenues.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the publisher of three very small dailies, total ad revenue of about $6 million. In overall ad sales, year-over-year third quarter, one paper is about even, one is up 3 percent, and the third is up 15 percent.

The one about even is in a town that two years ago lost its major employer. The one up 3 percent is in a touristy market where the real estate advertising has dropped off the table. And the one up 15 percent competes with another local daily.

Outside of being very good local papers, there's one reason why they're bucking the downward trend.

Any guesses? And it has nothing to do with the Internet.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Outside of being very good local papers, there's one reason why they're bucking the downward trend.

Any guesses? And it has nothing to do with the Internet."

You're copying Murdoch and putting semi-nude women on page three?

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Page 3 girls?

No, but not a bad idea.

The short answer is our papers are free.

But hold on. Our free papers resemble paid papers more than most of the free ones everyone talks about.

The big city free papers, like the Metros, target 18-34-year-olds and commuters, and as we all know, resemble marketing products more than "real" newspapers.

On the other end of the spectrum are the 17 free dailies published by David Black in western Canada, which at least according to a story on free-daily.com mostly recycle wire stories.

God love 'em if they work — no criticism here — but they are not editorially driven like yours are, or should be.

Our papers are, and we've learned the hard way that other than being free it is the most important factor for their success.

It's interesting that in the rush to go digital, many paid newspapers are devaluing their two biggest assets — presses and editorial content.

Readers like newspapers, they just don't want to pay for them anymore, and the quicker publishers separate the two, the sooner they can they can back to getting creative with how they distribute and zone them.

Going free isn't enough, though. Low cost, meaning two layers of editors instead of five, and going local, with stories and advertisers, are the major operational reasons that make the editorially-driven free paper model work.

Our three papers are located within a two-hour drive of each other, and are in totally different types of markets. That tells me the model could work in hundreds, probably thousands, of communities across the country.

5:26 AM  
Anonymous David Mastio said...

I brought this idea to the folks at Landmark a couple years back:

Why not nichify the daily seven days a week. Have the standard paper, but for people who want to pay a little more, you get an enhanced edition:

Perhaps you have a regular paper that has an extra sports section wrapped around the regular paper with in depth national sports coverage and expanded local sports coverage to target young males seven days a week. (Maybe only several days a week.)

In a military town like Hampton Roads where the public is much more conservative than the paper, you have a new a-section for those that want it where the front page stories are picked with a right-leaning news judgment and the left-leaning editorial page is swapped for a right-leaning one.

Maybe for heavily business-interested customers, you add a version of the WSJ to the local paper and have an extra local business section three times a week.

No doubt people could come up with a version targeting young families or other potentially lucrative niches.

I am not saying a paper should do all of these, but perhaps pick one or two that work with their market and see whether the objection to paying for a paper is that it is one-size fits all instead of a little more tailored.

To get the more targeted niche audiences, perhaps advertisers would pay more to be in those special sections.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

"In a military town like Hampton Roads where the public is much more conservative than the paper,..."

The newspaper in Hampton Roads has a bad corporate strategy.

3:52 PM  

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