Igniting the Base: Reimagining Circulation
Posted: 3/14/2014  |  By: Gretchen A. Peck
Circulation, as a newspaper organization discipline, is so much more complex now than it was even 20 years ago, when the Internet and digital media were in their infancy. The roles and responsibilities have changed, and the skills that the new breed of circulation professional must possess are diverse, dynamic, and often data-driven.            

To the news organization now, circulation is no longer simply a matter of operations and logistics, suggested Christian Lee, vice president of circulation for The McClatchy Company’s (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram.            

Lee noted that he’s seen both profound, sweeping changes in the way newspapers manage circulation, and more subtle, perhaps symbolic gestures, too: “Just last year, we changed from a Circulation Department to an Audience Development Department, and (now) everything is focused on audience, brand, and fulfillment.”            

Though no role or department within newspaper organizations has been sheltered from change brought on by the challenged economy and introduction of “new media,” those in circulation have perhaps been the most burdened by not only doing more with less, but doing new and more with less. The entire job description has been revised. “[Circulation] is a big discipline and deserves a deep dive,” said Joe Leong, vice president, circulation, Albuquerque Publishing Company.            

Leong said that he’s worked for cutting-edge media companies throughout his career, so he’s accustomed to a dynamic culture. Even so, he recalled recent years as being particularly transformative for circulation professionals.            

“The main responsibility was to distribute the newspaper, and now the circulation executive needs to absolutely have fundamental operational skills, but also digital skills,” he said. “And they also need marketing and sales skills, and they need financial skills, and IT skills to be able to understand the data. … It’s a brand new discipline, and it’s a brand new person who will be successful in it.”            

Todd Benz is a seasoned newspaper veteran who serves as Halifax Media Group’s director of circulation. “When I started many years ago, circulation was the department responsible for driving those white vans around and dropping off bundles of papers. That was their role,” Benz recalled.            

“That role has since evolved from one that’s service-driven to one that’s marketing-driven now. We’re no longer simply ‘circulation;’ we’re ‘audience development.’ And while we still have the responsibility of driving the white vans and dropping off bundles of papers, it’s more complex now and circulation departments must transform themselves into marketing-driven organizations if they’re going to be successful today.”

Bridging the Gap
In a relative blink of an eye, the circulation landscape was completely altered, leaving even those who had built successful careers reeling. The result was a considerable skills gap and an industry-wide dilemma about how best to retrain the circulation labor force, and how to attract new talent.            

Lee suggested that one of the greatest challenges to professional development—and to hiring managers—is finding good people who have all the skills needed to bridge operations and sales and marketing. “It’s becoming much more of a marketing job—analyzing the markets, understanding where audiences are and can be, and then cross-marketing effectively, based on demographics and buying patterns,” he explained.            

According to Leong, as publishers seek to grow readership and tap new audiences for a diverse array of publications and platforms, there becomes greater need for cooperation between once-autonomous departments and functions, like advertising sales, public relations, and marketing. And the lines between those disciplines are hence blurred. Within his own department, Leong said that he’s hired top-notch pros in specialized roles—an advertising sales person recently, as well as a financial analyst and budget specialist, who work hand-in-hand with others who are adept at managing daily operations.            

Leong acknowledged the skills gap plaguing the industry—for a number of disciplines with news organizations—and agreed that it’s most apparent in circulation and audience-development.            

“I think people are afraid to come to circulation, and maybe they’re afraid to come to newspapers in general. They’re afraid to start a career,” he said. “From 2008 and beyond, when we had to cut people, we cut a lot of good talent. So there’s a gap between seasoned circulators and who’s going to be next.”            

While the industry works to bridge that skills gap for its legacy pros, it must simultaneously do a much better job of attracting young, bright people.            

“I think young people don’t think it’s sexy like broadcast, but media and multimedia is changing so much,” Lee said. “For example, at the Star-Telegram, we have the daily products; we have multiple websites and applications. We have weekly magazines, monthly magazines and newspapers.”            

To garner the interest of qualified and aspiring people to newspapers will require the industry to do a better job of telling its own story—all its juicy, gritty, and even thrilling tales about its dynamic culture and new-ground-breaking publishing.

Working in the Data Mines
One of the facets of news publishing that makes it special and unique is its role in the community. To best serve that community, publishers need to understand its members’ commonalities and nuances. Data reveals this, if it’s astutely studied and exploited. “Many years ago, I worked in circulation at a newspaper, and we had talks with a guy who was an expert at data modeling,” recalled Scott Wheatley, director of circulation, Canada Wide Media Limited, Vancouver. “We couldn’t act on it at the time, because it was too expensive. But the technology has evolved, and it’s more affordable now, so we can amass and use data in a number of different ways.”            

In order to leverage readership data, publishers have to invest not only the technology to gather it, but the personnel to interpret it.            

“If you want to be in circulation management and be successful, you’ve got to become a consumer marketing expert,” Wheatley said. “You have to understand big data; you have to be able to research and target your marketing prospects. So the job has evolved and become something a lot more sophisticated.”            

While big-data mining and analysis may seem a strategy within reach of only big-budgeted media companies, smaller publishers may benefit from external expertise and guidance, according to Benz.            

“I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of good folks, like MSG, Marketing Solutions Group. I’ve learned a lot from them about data mining and collection,” Benz said. “I’ve also worked a lot with mass2one, which is an email marketing company that has helped me better understand the role of email marketing and how we can effectively communicate with our customers that way.”            

The richest and most revealing data available to publishers and advertisers isn’t the number of print copies distributed; rather, it comes from the readership itself.            

“The newspaper industry and the print industry are not dying, like so many preach it is,” Benz said. “What has died is mass media—the one-size-fits-all approach. Now, we need to do 80 different things to market, when we used to only need to crank up the dialers in the telemarketing room. … We’ve got our print products, websites, all of our niche publications; and we have messaging opportunities with subscriber invoices and daily emails. Every communication we have with our customers is a potential for us to sell our message, and we need to do a much better job of that.”            

Data about a newspaper’s current audience is important to digest, for it allows publishers to create a “consumer profile” of likely subscribers, Benz said. “You need to understand what people want and how your product and services can relate to them. Then, you can deliver the proper incentive.”            

“We’re starting to see trends in when and how people are accessing our information,” said Lee. “At different times during the day, they’re looking at different devices—whether it be at home when they look at print while having a cup of coffee, or at the office on their desktops, or in the afternoons when they’re accessing it through their tablets and phones. And mobile is taking a much bigger portion of our readership.”

Circulation Standouts
The question about audience development that remains unanswered is: What’s the magic formula for growing circulation in a post-print-centric publishing era? Perhaps that’s because there is no magic formula or singular answer.            

“I think we have to do a much better job of packaging ourselves and presenting our whole picture,” Leong said. “We have a tendency to want to report how many copies we sold today, but our whole value proposition includes a weekly, a military publication, and three websites, and others that extend our reach.”            

He added that newspaper publishers have a great opportunity to keep the brand fresh in the minds of readers, to stay connected with them in ways that weren’t possible in a print-centric world. “For example, as a print subscriber, you’ll receive an email every day, with highlights from that day’s paper, which you can glance at or click through and read. That way, if you don’t get a chance to actually pick up the paper that day, you don’t feel as though you’ve missed something, and we’re able to stay connected with the reader.”            

Beyond email teasers and digital complements, Leong said there are other ways to extend the newspaper brand, add value for the reader, and gather some of that coveted user data. At Albuquerque Publishing Company, they’re in the process of rolling out a reader-rewards mobile app (a technological update to a prior rewards program accessed by a member card).            

“As a subscriber, you might go to any of 200 locations, and get a 20 percent discount,” Leong explained. “Up until the app, which is in development, we had no history on those transactions. In the future, a reader who goes to Subway twice a month may receive a Subway coupon on their renewal notice. Or they might receive a message about how much they saved by using their rewards app within the year—like, ‘You saved $35 and used your rewards program12 times this year!’ It’s a way that readers associate value with the newspaper that extends far beyond the editorial content.”            

Though it may not be in-vogue to applaud newspaper “success stories,” with so many pundits eager to write the industry off, there are anecdotal circulation wins that largely go unnoticed. The Alliance for Audited Media put out its list of Top 25 U.S. Newspaper Audience Gainers for September 2013, and the top-four newspapers cited boasted annual growth in double digits—double-digit gains—across print and digital platforms: The Advocate in Stamford, Conn. grew audience by 14.8 percent; Akron, Ohio’s Beacon Journal was up 12 percent; the Ledger in Lakeland, Fla. saw 10.9-percent growth, and the Olympian of Olympia, Wash., also expanded by 10 percent.

Star-Telegram’s Lee remarked that all successes are traced back to a single origin—content. People buy into newspapers—they subscribe—because they understand the value of the content, that it’s coming from a credible source, and that the reporting is based on facts and good journalism, he said.            

In the early days of digital and social media, publishers foolishly gave away content for free. “It didn’t make sense,” recalled Benz. “Suddenly we woke up and asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this? We’re giving people reason to say, ‘I don’t need to subscribe to your newspaper. I don’t need to stop at that rack, especially when I can see tomorrow’s front-page news online at 3 o’clock the afternoon before.’ By the time the print product hit the street, it was old news. And so we wondered why single-sales declined and subscriptions declined! It was because people are smart.”

Bundles and Huddles
The head-spinning pace at which circulation and audience-development roles have changed may naturally leave professionals disheartened, but there are resources to tap, and colleagues from whom to learn. The experts E&P interviewed for this article all agreed that regional associations, conferences and tradeshows, and other networking opportunities are more vital to industry health than ever before.            

“One thing that I think has changed in the industry—for the good—is that we’re not competitors anymore with the newspaper down the street,” Benz said. “We’re partners. In our case, we really are, because we have a robust alternative delivery program here in Burlington. We deliver eight different titles that we don’t ourselves publish, in addition to our own.            

“Five years ago, you could have come into our conference room, and we may have been having a discussion about how to beat out Greensboro’s News & Record, and keep them at bay to our west.

“Today, that conversation in our conference room has the News & Record at the table, and we’re talking about what we can do together. We’re still competing a little bit for ad dollars, certainly. I am sure that they’d like to take some of our advertising away, and I’m sure our ad department feels the same way. But the reality is that we can’t operate that way anymore. The simple economics just don’t work. You can’t afford to have five different carriers driving down the same street.”