Circulation and Audience Pros Talk Strategy, Changing Roles and Facing Challenges Head On

One of the most dynamic roles in a contemporary newspaper organization is circulation—or, increasingly what is becoming known as “audience development.”

For professionals who have worked in this field, everything has changed since the advent of the internet: the job, the platform, the data and the expectations. E&P reached out to circulation and audience pros at newspapers across the country to better understand how their role has changed, the new challenges that have emerged in the industry, and how they’re working to push past them.

Initiate Cultural Change

The greatest circulation-related challenge for the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio was, according to vice president of circulation and production Shaun Schweitzer, “transitioning the legacy circulation model to an advanced audience analytics mindset.”

“In the last six months, we decided, ‘No more toe dipping; it’s time to dive in!’ This required aggressive change within our traditional circulation structure and culture,” Schweitzer said. “We’ve adopted a new building-wide culture we’ve labeled ‘The Beacon Way.’ A key pillar in this mission statement is to live by the phrase, ‘Rethink everything, and ask: Is this getting us to our company objective of growing audience and revenue?’”

Schweitzer said it’s a mandate now to expect change, to remain nimble, and to “innovate more,” which has inspired some technological investment. Combined with the new company culture, the effects have been profoundly transformative.

“(We) make better decisions, attract, retain and engage our current and new audiences, through all platforms,” he said.

Shaun Schweitzer

Schweitzer has also seen the role of circulation managers change. “The focus at the outset of my career was very operations focused. There has been a significant shift towards total audience and now with artificial intelligence marketing efforts. Having an understanding of basic programming principles, web analytics and interactions, social media analytics and interactions, along with the traditional circulation metrics are essential in this arena today. They all are intertwined and need to be utilized to maximize total audience and revenue gains.”

The dynamics haven’t daunted Schweitzer, and many of his colleagues across the industry welcome the opportunity to broaden their skill sets—as individuals and as teams.

“Every day is an opportunity to learn,” Schweitzer said. “Creating a culture of collaboration is important within your news organization. We have encouraged more regular interactions with editorial and our digital and advertising teams, to increase our acumen in this arena. We have weekly digital meetings and retreats that include some experts in digital and audience engagement outside of the newspaper sector.”

Like many audience teams, they’ve come to rely on some outside expertise and help to manage through these cultural and operational changes, especially when it pertains to data. Schweitzer noted that external help with data mining and analysis has been invaluable.

“To truly understand our audience and provide the value our advertisers expect from us, we rely on online engagement matched with demographic data, and real-time behavioral analysis within our digital sectors, with quick dashboard KPI (Key Performance Indicator) systems to react and respond to the market in real time,” he said. “I like to think of our department as my own local SMB—small medium-sized business—with an entrepreneurial spirit, thinking outside the box and seeking synergies with non-traditional media. For instance, we’ve recently begun to generate revenue by utilizing our fleet during downtime for contract hauling of LTL (Less Than Truckload) freight within the region. Actively seeking new business opportunities is essential to fuel a new and rejuvenated culture. Monitors throughout the building are displayed through departments, so we can see in real time how our content is resonating.”

Restructuring the Organization

The Palm Beach Post is a bit of an anomaly in the group of newspapers owned by Cox Media Group. With Florida being a retirement mecca, the demographics of the readership trends about 10 to 15 years older than other similar newspapers. But that’s not the only thing about its readers that makes this paper unique, according to Mark Sasser, the paper’s senior director of audience. The audience also tends to be a transient and the market is still competitive.

“Every October we get thousands of subscribers who come in and out within a six-month period,” Sasser said. Some will newspaper hop, canceling and taking advantage of the two competitive papers’ new customer incentive rates.

Palm Beach Post’s competitor is the Sun Sentinel, which Sasser said is also a very good newspaper in terms of its content and the promotional pricing it offers. The competition is healthy for both publications, though it does present the unique challenge that readers can go back and forth between them.

In an attempt to kindly discourage that, Sasser noted that they’ve implemented a modest $5 activation fee. Over the course of a five-year period, a new subscriber will enjoy an introductory rate that’s approximately $250 per year, but then will gradually increase over time to the full price, which Sasser said is $683 for a full year.

There are several ways in which the newspaper and its parent company have changed in recent years. To start, the newspaper no longer outsources data analytics to a third party. It’s done in house. The news publisher also redrafted personnel roles and how they work in tandem.

“Although I’m the senior audience director for Palm Beach, I have the responsibility for sales and retention for all four newspapers,” Sasser explained. “My peer in Dayton has responsibility for customer service and retention. My peer in Atlanta has responsibility for distribution, and my peer in Austin has responsibility for consumer marketing.

“There’s another team that’s responsible for digital-only acquisitions, and we have a pretty good CRM (Customer Retention Management) component that makes sure that we don’t overlap talking to customers at the same time…Another group manages our list management, and another is dedicated to digital engagement and paid-site audience.”

All of the teams report up to Mark Medici, the multi-market vice president of audience, and that’s been the key to making all the interconnected parts run so smoothly. Sasser said that there is great collaboration between these teams and across the publishing organization.

“We meet regularly because we want to talk to customers in a uniform voice, and we want to make sure that the digital-only person isn’t sending to the same list that we sent a print subscription appeal to the day before,” he said. “We’re working with the analytics team to give us the best prospect of what our ideal customer profile looks like, especially for a digital subscriber, and we’re targeting them specifically based on that information.”

The type of data Sasser studies is different than it was just a few years ago, he said, and measuring digital engagement is paramount.

“We discovered that a print subscriber, who is also digitally engaged, is also three times more likely to renew when their renewal statement comes out. So we work very hard to keep customers engaged,” Sasser explained.

He also recalled a time when the subscription value proposition was reliant on value-adds like the number of coupons in Sunday editions. But those days are over. “Now, it’s more about the great content we provide,” he said.

Getting Laser-Focused on Revenue

Utah’s Standard-Examiner is published by Ogden Publishing Corp. Like most news organizations, the paper has seen resources decline while the demands to publish across platforms have steepened. As circulation director, Tim Coles is responsible for growing audience in both print and digital while also serving on the cross-function marketing team.

“I believe that my job is to deliver news and information in whatever form the customer wants to receive it,” Coles said.

Still, it’s not enough to merely compile subscriptions anymore. Today’s circulation and audience professional must also be keen about the impact to the newspaper’s bottom line.

“That is a change in philosophy that has happened over the last 10 or 15 years,” Coles said. “Not only do we need to grow units or audience, we have to understand how to monetize it…It is as though we didn’t understand before that we needed to be responsible for helping the paper make money, but it’s a much bigger part of the equation today—how we implement programs and impact the newspaper’s financial health.”

He noted that the publishing organization is “very data driven,” and said that data and trends have enabled circulation and marketing to make smart, strategic decisions, especially in the digital space.

Coles remains bullish on print, and with good reason.

“The last 15 months, our single-copy sales have been up year-over-year,” he said. “Print is a very important part of the equation because that’s where we get most of our dollars, so we need to keep print alive and healthy while we’re trying to figure out this electronic age.”

The pricing model for the Standard-Examiner is simple. There’s a print subscription rate, and a digital-only rate. If a subscriber chooses to bundle the two platforms, they pay the print rate, plus “an extra quarter a week for the digital.”

Soon, the newspaper will build a paywall and reduce the volume of free access.

“We felt like the content we put out there is valuable and worth it, and our readers are willing to pay for it,” Coles said.

Incentivizing Customers

The Daily Press Media Group is the Newport News, Virginia-based subsidiary of Tribune Publishing. It’s the publisher behind a host of special-interest publications and is most known for its local newspapers: the Daily Press, the Virginia Gazette and the Tidewater Review. David Messick serves as the director of audience development for all three titles, and he’s the first to admit that during the course of his career, he’s adapted to a lot of change.

David Messick

“You will remember 15 years ago when, if you were a circulation director, all you needed to do was buy a new homeowner sales list, and you could stay in business,” Messick said. “It didn’t take rocket science, just discipline. You knew that once a person bought a home, they’d buy a newspaper. (But) that world has changed. While we can find new movers online, getting the needle to move digitally is much more challenging.”

Marketing, in general, also has changed. With the “Do Not Call List” and other regulations, the telemarketing support circulation departments received has vanished. At the same time, direct mail has gotten exponentially more expensive.

Despite the challenges, Messick has had some victories. “We’ve been most successful with our kiosk and storefront sales, where we’ve had record years two years in a row.”

Messick is also making progress in delivering the news digitally to readers who may be mistakenly expected to be diehard print fans.

“It’s important that older users see themselves using our digital products. There is a misconception that only younger readers are interested in digital,” he said. “So a lot of our marketing now shows readers of all ages, including retirees, using our digital products. Once they discover them, they love them.

“It used to be that we’d only show 20-somethings holding a tablet, just thrilled that they could finally get the newspaper on a tablet. That message is wrong in so many ways, and we’ve found that our e-edition is great for older readers”

The Daily Press Media Group promotes its regional titles at live event. At one music festival, the publisher erected a giant newspaper hawker to denote the path to the festival’s entrance and to promote its brand. (Photo provided)

Creating Promos That Work

While speaking to circulation and audience professionals at newspapers large and small across the country, it became immediately clear that they are no longer working in purely logistical roles. A great amount of creativity is required of them.

For the Daily Press Media Group’s titles in Virginia, music festivals offer a seasonal wellspring of opportunity. The group of regional newspapers are represented at each event—nearly one every weekend from spring to fall, according to Messick. At one of the events, the publisher installed a giant inflatable newspaper hawker to mark the path from the parking lots to the festival’s main entrance.

“If it’s an outdoor concert, we may give away chairs with a paid subscription, or umbrellas—things that are helpful and branded with our logos. Those have worked really well for us,” Messick said.

At the Akron Beacon Journal, there’s been no “silver bullet” to grow audience; however, several recent approaches have shown promise.

“We’ve have recent success with events and contesting,” Schweitzer said. “We hold a quarterly couponing event that generates significant subscriptions…Our contesting methods have helped with brand awareness to key demo targets we typically didn’t reach through our traditional platforms. Introducing more value-added options, such as subscriber rewards and benefit programs have helped retain and acquire new subscribers, as well.”

Events are also vital marketing initiatives at the Standard-Examiner. The newspaper has a brand and physical presence at music events, home and garden and bridal expos, to name a few.

“Our publisher has assigned each department head to be out in the community and to join a civic or community group, so that we can connect with our audience,” Coles said.

At the Palm Beach Post, Sasser reported that live events, including music festivals, have been tremendously successful.

“We write a lot of print subscriptions at these events, just by having staff at our booth—subscriptions in the 10,000 range,” he said. “It has brought a great deal of awareness to our digital products. Even when someone buys a print subscription, we want them to register and digitally engage. It gives us the opportunity to be face-to-face with our customers, so that we can demo our digital products.

“We have iPads at every event we do. We show them our digital products, our web pages, our email newsletters. Even if they don’t buy a paid subscription, getting them to register for an e-newsletter allows us to upsell them at a later time. Events have been really successful, mainly because it’s face-to-face.”


Digital (and Print) Subscription Models: A Comparison

Nearly every newspaper has a tiered pricing model that’s based on either choosing a platform or blending them (print and/or digital and mobile). There’s some of that customization available in non-news media digital subscription services, as seen with Netflix’s Basic, Standard or Premium plans. Here, we compared subscription models offered by both newspaper organizations and non-news media publishers to give you an idea on how incentives and pricing models work.–GP

Albuquerque Journal

  • $10/mo. – Unlimited digital access to and Albuquerque Journal print replica.
  • $19.17/mo. – Seven day home delivery of the print edition, plus access to the e-edition and unlimited access to (via desktop or mobile device).
  • $12/mo. – Sunday home delivery of the print edition, with access to the e-edition unlimited access to (via desktop or mobile device).

Akron Beacon Journal

Incentive: New subscribers may enjoy a 20- to 40-percent discount based on promotions throughout the year.

  • $260 – Seven day print-only annual cost (All print subscriptions include digital access to the e-edition and
  • $110.88 – Digital-only annual (The first month is $0.99, with $9.99 each month for 11 months.)

The Baltimore Sun

Incentive: The publisher recently offered a “Labor Day Sale,” which afforded new customers the following discounted rates:

  • For unlimited digital access: $2/week for 20 weeks; then $1.99/week. They may cancel at anytime.
  • For Saturday and Sunday home delivery + unlimited digital access: $2/week for 20 weeks; then $2.49/week thereafter.

Frontier Communications Corp. (A Northeast regional cable, internet and telecommunications provider)

Incentive: As of August 2017, the current offer includes a two-year subscription to HBO.

  • $65/mo. – TV and internet/WiFi


Incentive: One month free with subscription. There is no contract required, and customers may cancel their subscription at any time.

  • $14.99/mo.


Incentive: One month free for new customers.

  • $7.99/mo. (HBO, CINEMAX and Showtime are add-ons.)
  • $39.99/mo. – Hulu with Live TV, currently in Beta. New customers will receive one week free with subscription.


Incentive: One month free with subscription.

  • $7.99/mo. – Basic plan (no high-definition broadcasts; accessible on one screen at a time)
  • $9.99/mo. – Standard plan (accessible on two screens at a time)
  • $11.99/mo. – Premium plan (accessible on as many as four screens at a time, with content available in Ultra High Definition)

The Seattle Times

Incentive: Discounted introductory pricing.

  • Unlimited digital access: $1/week for four weeks; then, $3.99/week thereafter. Subscribers have unlimited desktop and mobile access to, unlimited access to the newspaper’s iOS app, and access to the e-edition.
  • Digital access + Sunday print home delivery: $1/week for five weeks; then $3.99/week thereafter. Subscribers receive all the digital perks of the unlimited digital access plan, and home delivery of the Sunday print edition.
  • Digital + 7-day delivery: $3/week for five weeks; then $8.70/week thereafter. This plan affords all the perks of digital access, plus home delivery of the print edition, seven days a week.


  • $10.99/mo. – Sirius Mostly Music, with access to approximately 80 satellite radio channels.
  • $15.99/mo. – Sirius Select, with access to approximately 140 channels.
  • $19.99/mo. – Sirius All Access, with 150+ channels and streaming to digital devices other than the satellite radio receiver.
  • $15.99/mo. – A streaming-only plan.
  • $4/mo. – Add-on streaming to Sirius Mostly Music or Sirius Select plans.

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected]

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