Business of News: Why I Decided to Cancel My Print Newspaper Subscription After 40 Years

Did you feel a supernatural chill on Jan. 10, 2019? Did the earth split open near you on the second Thursday of the first month of the year 2019 A.D.? I wouldn’t be surprised. That is the day that I, Timothy Joseph Gallagher, being of sound mind and body, and who has had a newspaper delivered each morning and/or afternoon for approximately 40 years, cancelled his print newspaper subscription.

The day has been on my mind for more than a year, but I could not bring myself to “stop the paper” no matter what changes they made. They reduced the web width again. They combined sections. They went to an outside printing facility so evening sports scores and council meetings were reported a day late. The carrier could not correctly calculate my vacation stop. And then—just as I was tiptoeing to the end of the plank—they pushed me. The cost for the print subscription rose to just under 50 bucks per month. Nearly double what I had been paying.

Perhaps the biggest factor, however, was the habit I developed of reading tomorrow’s newspaper on my tablet tonight. When I called to cancel—and spoke to the customer service desk halfway around the world—my monthly bill for a digital-only subscription dropped to $6.99. I began life as a digital-only subscriber to my local paper, a Southern California regional paper and a national paper.

I waited. There were some withdrawal symptoms. The carrier even mistakenly dropped off the paper one day. And then about a week later, I was having lunch with a man who works for one of the world’s largest digital advertising wholesalers. He told me just how sophisticated this world of digital content and advertising is becoming.

His colleagues got into a cab in Midtown. In bumper to bumper traffic, they noticed the digital ad sign on the cab in front of them in traffic was serving ads and news content specifically tailored to them. A company had figured out how to track their phones (which track their interests) and serve them content directly in their viewing space while they were in a slow-moving vehicle in one of the world’s largest cities.

Um, can your newspaper do that?

Does your newspaper have to do that in order to survive? Only if you do it well.

The print newspaper edition is on palliative care. The model has changed for good. There is some excellent research about what happens when a newspaper drops print subscriptions. And there is always Paul Gillin’s Newspaper Death Watch, the black humor blog that does a good job tracking newspapers that drop print and head to digital-only.

The Media Insight Project has done the best job of tracking why people choose to subscribe digitally. The results should be encouraging to publishers and editors who value accurate and high-quality local journalism. (If you’re thinking about cutting your newsroom on your path to profitability, just stop reading now.) In fact, “supporting local journalism” is the top reason about one-third of digital subscribers cite. And about two-thirds said they strongly desired access to local community news.

Discounts matter and you might have to let them have a few months of content for free in order to hook them as paying customers.

The size and demographics of your market matter. Those readers coming from smaller communities tend to hold onto their print subscriptions longer than those in metro areas. Those converting to digital tend to be younger, skew male and have attained a higher level of education.

Digital-only readers are retained by paying attention to important local news and reporting it fairly and accurately.

The temptation as we move to a digital audience is to mine the crumbs that digital readers leave behind and convert that into more attractive news and advertising. When this is done well, customers see it as convenience. When it’s done intrusively, customers find it creepy. As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the backlash against social media digital detective work and major data breeches grows stronger.

Citizens do crave a certain amount of privacy and we need to respect that even as we serve them in a digital diner.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at [email protected].

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10 thoughts on “Business of News: Why I Decided to Cancel My Print Newspaper Subscription After 40 Years

  • March 19, 2019 at 6:22 am
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    A lovely tale but it misses the value of the print product. It isn”t easy to take a tablet to the bathroom. Paper newspapers are made for a short “sit-down” or a long relaxing massage bath. You can’t instantly compare stories on multiple pages using a tablet or phone–the type isn’t legible. Piece of cake with a print product. And if you live in an area with poor internet speed (yes, they exist in many places and the benefits generally outweigh the drawbacks), reading online takes forever. Besides, how many steps does it take to stick a news story for followup to the fridge with a magnet for a print paper vs. an online one. And finally, nobody has a record of what stories I read or don’t read in my print paper. Everyone seems to when I read a story online, and that is a security risk for me and my family. BOTH forms have great value. Besides, you can use a thing called a candle to read a print paper when an ice or thunder storm wipesout the power. Try that when the power fails, the generator (if you’ve paid the cost of having them) runs out of fuel, and you’re bored out of your skull and might even have to talk to you (ugh) kids, parents or spouse. But you can hide from that with print. Those who worship at the altar of online only will be sacrificed there on the chopping block of privacy demands. I’m sticking with an intelligent mix of both–electronic for quick news updates (I read dozens a day) and print, when I want to dive in in depth or use the paper, magazine or whatever for all the purposes above. Ask McClatchy or BuzzFeed how that’s working for their stockholders

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  • March 19, 2019 at 6:23 am
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    Tim:

    Did this with all my print editions a few years ago. Now I subscribe electronically to Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Petoskey News-Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Guardian…. never been happier… they all arrived early… you can save and send articles and pix… you can save for later… canceling print and going electronically, especially on an iPad pro is a no brainer…

    Frank Shepherd

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    • March 19, 2019 at 7:50 am
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      Frank, all you need now is your Traverse City Record-Eagle… smile.

      Reply
  • March 19, 2019 at 7:24 am
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    Thanks Tim, for bringing up a concern that I have for our entire industry.

    Unfortunately, the failings of our big brothers (dailies) seem to make everyone think that the industry is a sinking ship, which isn’t true at all.

    Free distribution newspapers available in print and online have continued to move forward with outstanding success for the sake of readers and advertisers. Our newspaper, the Fillmore County Journal, a 13,500 circulation weekly newspaper in Southeast Minnesota, covers 15 city councils, seven school boards, county government meetings, and township news when there is a story that needs to be told.

    We also provide free obituaries in print and online. That’s right, no cost! Free birth announcements, free engagement announcements, free wedding announcements, free military service announcements.

    Police and court reports. Local commentary. Local features. Local sports. All provided in our newspaper.

    FREE to readers in print and online.

    We deliver to every household, business, and farmer via the USPS in our county, and a little bit beyond.

    I once wrote a commentary title “Names and faces… 843”, and that piece pointed out that we had 843 local names and faces represented in that single issue of the newspaper. It’s always about local people. It’s ALWAYS BEEN about local people. That’s never changed.

    The majority of newspapers (particularly dailies) that are dying are killing themselves by repeating the failings of others. Cutting newsroom, pressroom, circulation, and ad sales staff. Cutting frequency. And, all of these cuts create enemies of the industry along the way. Nearly every single ex-newspaper employee loved what they did, and they’ve now left the industry with a bad taste in their mouth.

    The reality is that any business owner who tries to cut their way to profits will eventually diminish quality to the point that customers (readers and advertisers) will notice.

    And, regarding the online business model, our staff came up with a game plan that I think makes sense for supporting the long-term goal of the print model. We cannot make plans for the digital presence without considering the impact on the more significant print model.

    1. No non-local advertisements. No “Ad Choices” or any other third party online advertising options are allowed on our website. We feel that people don’t like to be stalked when they do a Google search for a product and then they visit news sites and see that product forced down their throat constantly with Ad Choices. We’d rather take a pass on that online revenue for the sake of a better reader experience.
    2. No in-article advertisements. That annoys readers to have to see an ad imbedded within an article — every two paragraphs.
    3. No online ads are allowed for businesses that don’t support the print product. If you don’t advertise in the newspaper, you can’t advertise on the website.
    4. No overpriced online advertising. If business owners are asked to spend more money on your website advertising options, they will cut back somewhere else… and it could impact your print product. Online advertising is over-priced. We charge a minimal amount that will never force an advertiser to make a decision to cut back on print advertising.

    Our website http://www.fillmorecountyjournal.com just won first place at the Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest and the Midwest Free Community Publications conference. And, our website was designed by our own web design company, SMG Web Design, that we started nearly 10 years ago — operating in the same office as our newspaper. We are very fortunate that when we have monthly newspaper staff meetings, our web design company staff is sitting in on those same meetings helping us navigate how we can utilize our website opportunities, as well.

    That’s how we do it, and it continues to work for the benefit of all involved.

    Reply
  • March 19, 2019 at 8:50 am
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    Printed newspapers cannot compete with the speed and efficiency of free digital news. By the time the newspaper reaches the consumer, the news is no longer the latest news. Digital breaking stories are constantly updated keeping the users up to date with the latest breaking events. AOL News, Yahoo News, USA News App, Fox News App, Apple News App all free. Users can glean breaking news, world news, local news, sports, entertainment, and health in mere moments all at their fingertips twenty-four-seven. The genie is out of the lamp and free digital news is expanding at warp speed providing enhanced products as never before. The time-consuming steps, materials and labor costs associated with a printed product continue to make a myriad of printed newspapers irrelevant. Technology has always been a two-edge-sword.

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  • March 19, 2019 at 2:59 pm
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    When I get electronic notices a periodical has arrived, I tend to ignore them, thinking I’ll get to it later. When the WSJ hits the driveway, or a magazine the mailbox, I tend to grab a cup of coffee and read it immediately. Also, the visually pleasing graphic display on large format beats a little screen any day.

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  • March 20, 2019 at 6:04 am
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    Two comments:
    1. My daily newspaper (Atl Journal Constitution) cancelled me. “We no longer are going to home deliver your neighborhood.” I can’t get it delivered even if I’m willing to pay more than the $400 a year I was paying. How’s that for customer service? I have been an AJC customer over 20 years and they quit me.

    2. As you say this all moves to digital? Good luck to newspapers who think they’re going to get any real portion of the revenue they now acquire from advertisers in print form. Isn’t going to happen. The metro’s gave up print years ago. The local community papers forge on with the printed product because, in part, that’s what their readers want.

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    • March 24, 2019 at 3:34 pm
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      Joel,

      You are right on the money.

      I had a similar experience with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

      I took my family to a Minnesota Wild game, and there was a booth where if you sign up for a subscription then you get a Wild blanket. I bought two consecutive subscriptions, thinking my kids would have something memorable from the game, and my wife and I would enjoy reading the Star-Tribune.

      A week later, the Star-Tribune called me to say they couldn’t deliver to my home in southern Minnesota. So, they said I was converted to a premium digital subscription. That’s not what I wanted.

      So, now I maybe use our premium digital subscription once a week. My wife doesn’t use it at all. And, while they have great writers and content in general, I don’t like reading the newspaper in a digital format.

      And I don’t believe readers using the digital format notice ads as well as they do with the print product. If I have to zoom in to look at the ad, I won’t.

      So, I feel that online ads are less effective and therefore less valuable compared to print ads.

      Newspapers will not be able to operate long-term with the same commitment to journalism if they put all their energy into online ad revenue.

      Also, if the Star-Tribune arrived at our home in print, there are four potential readers (counting my teenage children). Right now, they are getting one from our house. Me. And I’m rarely using their digital option.

      Reply
  • March 25, 2019 at 5:03 am
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    Great article, Tim. I still love the feel and experience of reading the newspaper, but also have the digital option. I find all other sources of news are actually opinion. At least the paper identifies what is opinion. Other sources have lost the basics of journalism, such as reporting fact and letting readers decide how to interpret. I also place the blame on TV news for dividing our people by stirring a muddy pot of extrapolated non facts. Ok. That’s my opinion.

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  • May 11, 2019 at 7:21 am
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    What irks me — and I have not seen this discussed anywhere — is that after paying $63.14 per month (plus more for “special” editions) to Gannett’s Florida Today for paper delivery, the paper wants more for a digital subscription. This is outrageous and will, one day, cause me to tell them they lost another subscriber.

    Reply

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