By: Nu Yang
While it seems more newspapers are reporting declining print revenue and circulation numbers, this is not the case for the Chesterfield Observer, a weekly based in Midlothian, Va. An independent audit conducted last spring showed the paper increased its circulation by 24.6 percent to 69,244 — making it the largest-circulation weekly newspaper in the state.
The Observer is bulk mailed and delivered every Wednesday. The paper recently increased the number of copies bulk mailed by adding two new ZIP codes to its distribution area, boosting the mailing list by almost 14,000 homes. These new homes are located near the Richmond metro area, opening up a new market. Publisher Greg Pearson said the paper reaches about 60 percent of its readers by bulk mail. The paper also mails out about 200 copies to paid subscribers and advertisers.
The circulation increase would not be possible without a dedicated sales staff willing to take on the challenge. Pearson said he proposed several options for increasing circulation, and the sales team chose to work toward having the largest circulation in the state.
But, they had to increase advertising rates by 27 percent to obtain that goal. The Observer had not raised rates in three years. Pearson said he lost a few clients because the new ZIP codes did not add to their customer base, but the paper’s year-to-date sales as of December 2011 were still up 39.2 percent compared to last year’s, which was previously the paper’s best.
Pearson attributes the paper’s rise in numbers to what he calls “an old business model based on print circulation.
“We still believe that circulation counts,” he said. “And we make an impact with a huge mail drop every Wednesday.”
Pearson said the paper makes less than 1 percent of its revenue online. All of the Observer’s print advertisers receive an ad on the website as added value, but the paper only has one advertiser who is online only.
“I’ve talked to other weeklies in the state, and they say they’re not making any money (online), so the jury is still out on that,” he said.
But Pearson does have his sights set on a website redesign with a focus on selling more Web ads.
“We’re in expansion mode, investing in the future,” he said. “We purchased a new building (last year), and we’re getting ready to launch a new monthly magazine in April.” The free Chesterfield Monthly will include news, interviews, and lifestyle stories. The magazine will also be bulk mailed with a circulation of 65,000. Pearson said four advertisers have already signed annual contracts.
“There will definitely be some synergy between the magazine and newspaper,” Pearson said. “I see revenue coming both ways.” He also said he would like to start new publications in the next few years in his expanded office building.
Even in this economic downturn, Pearson said there should still be hope. “If we think print is on the decline, then it will be on the decline. It’s all in our manner of thinking, and we need to think the future is bright.”