Monday, April 30, 2007

Hate being a 97-pound weakling?

Now that newspapers have shed tons of excess and unsightly circulation, it’s time to take their extreme makeover to the next level by pumping up their content, circulation prices and advertising rates.

Newspapers need to raise their quality and boost their prices to establish themselves as the premium products they rightfully deserve to be. It’ll do wonders for their self-esteem, too, especially in light of the latest circulation swoon.

As duly reported, feebly spun and previously dissected herein, newspaper circulation has been diving on a regular basis for the last few years. The average daily circulation fell 2.1% and Sunday tumbled 3.1% in the six-month period ended in March, according to an analysis of the audited figures from the Newspaper Association of America.

While some of the decline is attributable to the inroads made by new technologies and the inescapable mortality of the population cohort most amenable to print, a considerable portion of the decline results from the efforts of publishers to eliminate the discount and vanity circulation they had employed in a vain effort to make the industry appear to be more robust than it actually was.

Here’s one example of how newspapers are moderating their geographic hubris:

“We will no longer deliver a print newspaper to outlying regions every day,” said John Mellott, the publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who pared his circulation to 73 counties from a previous 200. “The $5 it costs to deliver a 50-cent newspaper to those areas makes little business sense, especially when our advertisers demand an audience closer to their stores and places of business.”

The AJC, which used to pride itself on covering Dixie like the dew, said its circulation would be reduced 5% by denying delivery to subscribers as far away as Alabama, South Carolina and Florida, not to mention many distant parts of Georgia. In the latest six-month period, the AJC’s daily circ declined by 2%. The de-dew-ification did not take effect until April 1, the last month of the half-year period. That probably means even less of Dixie will be covered six months from now.

Crash circulation diets have been under way from the Bay Area of Florida to the Bay Area of California and almost everywhere in between. But diet without exercise, as we all know, just leaves you a 97-pound weakling.

A significant amount of hefty lifting will be required to fix an industry that has been a strategic couch potato for a dangerously long time. Here’s what it’s going to take:

Newspapers need quality subscribers, which requires circulation bases that are defensible and valuable to their advertisers. Fluffed-up, mass-market numbers won’t cut it in a world where shrewd marketers are happily buying ads a click at a time at Google. Instead of relying on deep discounts and largely discredited tricks like third-party circulation, newspapers need to attract – and retain – long-term, full-price customers in the geographic and demographic areas that advertisers covet.

Quality subscribers require, and deserve, quality content. Newspapers need to passionately and compassionately set the agenda in their communities, as emphasized here by David Carr in the New York Times. No other medium ever will have the content-producing capabilities of even the most resource-constrained newspaper. Newspapers should take full advantage of their unfair advantage.

A quality audience reading quality content demands quality customer service. Make every customer contact count – and make sure every paper arrives safe and sound at the appointed time.

Great content plus great service equals a premium product. Anyone shelling out $3.75 for a latte three times a day can afford a buck or two for a newspaper. Newspapers shouldn’t be coy about charging any less than what most people spend per day on cable TV. The same goes for online content, which the industry has been giving away for a dozen years in history’s longest running free, introductory offer.

Put it all together and you have a quality product, hand-delivered each day to a loyal audience paying a premium price. Who couldn't get top ad rates for that?


Blogger Ryan said...

This is such a good point, I'm surprised more people are not making it. People who understand the value of the information in a quality newspaper and who consider themselves engaged and well informed about their city are not shopping on price.

I would venture the SF Chronice could pull off a price hike when it moves to the new presses, which apparently can do full color on each page. Any increase of course needs to come with both highly visible and behind the scenes quality improvements.

If you look at some of the better city business journals you will see the power and profitability of aiming for high quality and charging accordingly. Disclaimer, I work at a city business journal.

6:29 PM  

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