Industry Insight: To Slow Decline, Newspaper Print Editions Should Act Their Age

Flat is the new growth, many would say, when it comes to declining volume of daily newspaper print circulation, especially as success has been found in raising prices among the most loyal subscribers.

So maybe it’s time for publishers to radically lean in to serving and retaining their most loyal print readers—the elderly.

I’ve read a lot of lengthy, handwritten or typed-and-snail-mailed letters from print edition subscribers in their 70s and 80s, usually written in response to a price increase or renewal notice. After nominal objection to price, their real passion spills out.

Why can’t we deliver the paper to their doorstep like we used to (they’re not as mobile as they used to be and worried about an icy driveway in the winter), or get it there at a consistent time to fit their early morning breakfast routine?

Why are our bills so confusing? Why is putting the paper on hold while they’re in Florida such a frustrating process now? Why do they have to wait on hold to talk to someone from out of state who doesn’t seem familiar with our newspaper and can’t actually make a decision if they have a special request? Why can’t they get someone in charge on the phone?

Why do we keep making the size of type smaller (since we haven’t changed anything, it might actually be that their eyesight is getting worse)? Can’t we hire a proofreader and do something about all those typos and grammar mistakes?

Newspaper publishers have gone through stages of dealing with the print decline—trying to make print editions appeal to a younger audience with youth sections, edgier content and splashier and more colorful layouts; trying to incorporate all kinds of tie-ins and promotion of online content in the print edition, hoping that the combination of experiences breeds loyalty; and neglecting print altogether as they focused on growing a less lucrative digital audience.

Fast-forward and you have a remaining core group of print subscribers who are older than ever, and print editions that are mostly frozen in whatever stage of tweaking when publishers stopped thinking about their evolution. You also have a limited but perhaps significant pool of older, engaged people in your community who have canceled their subscriptions in recent years because we failed them.

It’s time to zero in on what they want in a print edition, and that means questioning some assumptions about print’s relationship to the broader digital news ecosystem.

A Pew Research Center study of daily print newspaper readership found that as much as half of this audience reads the news in print only. So assuming that they’ve already read a story that just missed the previous day’s print edition could be wrong. Assuming that they get their world-nation news elsewhere could be wrong. Most likely, they’re looking for as well-rounded a picture of the news of their community, region, state, nation and world in print as possible.

Maybe the formula for print subscriber retention includes increasing newshole to provide more national wire content and late previous-day box scores (that we all pay for anyway) and increasing the size of type to be friendly to aging eyeballs.

What other kinds of content will inform and delight an older print audience? History and nostalgia, longer features, puzzles. They have leisure time to spend on these things that a younger audience does not.

Why aren’t we treating the obituary pages, from a design and editing perspective, as one of the most important sections of the newspaper? We might joke about it, but what could be more important than the deaths of loyal readers’ contemporaries? And if a Tim Conway or Doris Day dies, it deserves major treatment. These are the stars of our readers’ youth.

The same kind of thought process could be applied to local news and information. It will likely lead to quite a divergence between newspapers’ print editions and digital presence, but end up serving both audiences more effectively.

The cost implications of the distribution and customer service element of the problem could be more difficult to fix given how much publishers have changed the cost structure to hold on to profits in recent years. But if our most loyal readers are canceling because of it, we’ve got to admit that we’ve made that tradeoff and are choosing to wind down the print business one frustrated senior citizen at a time.

Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst’s newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.

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14 thoughts on “Industry Insight: To Slow Decline, Newspaper Print Editions Should Act Their Age

  • July 17, 2019 at 5:13 am
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    Very insightful, should have been considered a long time ago. Although I think the demographics for core newspaper customers might be a little younger too. Newspapers have long been trying to adapt by becoming like the competition and doing a poor job of it. All the while overlooking their unique strengths and advantages. Not every customer regardless of age wants to drink from the internet firehose of information for what they want or need.

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  • July 17, 2019 at 5:39 am
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    Kudos to you for calling attention to this vital subject and its many tangents. Call me a dinosaur, but as both a former print reporter (whose paper closed), I remain ever-faithful to the print editions of newspapers, but it’s getting harder to do as those editions get thinner, less substantive and far more expensive. … And if I could have written this in 12 or 14 point Times New Roman, I would have:)

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  • July 17, 2019 at 6:51 am
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    You must answer my phone. We can’t/don’t deliver the paper in any consistent basis; we fee our loyal customers to death and try to force them on-line; when we get a new subscriber it takes weeks to get them a paper and then only after they beg us to deliver; and we don’t deliver to big chunks of our market. I hope somebody from BH Media reads your article.

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  • July 17, 2019 at 9:31 am
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    Service was so poor at my former paper (due to layoffs, move to contract operators) many circ calls came to the newsroom. Reporters would drop a missed paper off to a frustrated subscriber on their way to an assignment or home. Older readers were so appreciative of the personal service I know we kept a few from cancelling their subscriptions. Today’s bean counters just don’t understand.

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  • July 17, 2019 at 10:39 am
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    The newspaper I work at as a reporter and copy editor is published weekly and has always been free. Rather than home delivery, we deliver much of our product to outdoor boxes. The remainder are inside public places, such as restaurants, bars, local retail stores and some government buildings. To solve the problem of incompetent and/or lazy delivery drivers, all of our reporters spend time a day or two each week delivering papers. I hear from many former subscribers to the big, corporate daily paper in our town about why they stopped reading it. The cost increases are a mild complaint, but the inconsistent delivery is slowing killing that paper.

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  • July 17, 2019 at 12:40 pm
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    Just go away. By the time I die, you will too. The constant self-important whining leaves me wishing my remaining time would go more quickly.

    “What other kinds of content will inform and delight an older print audience? History and nostalgia, longer features, puzzles”

    Uh. right. Because we’re not smart enough to comprehend long articles about difficult or just interesting topics that don’t take sides or tell us how we should think. And your reporters have neither the patience, intellect, trust for readers or dispassionate objectivity to produce the content we prefer.

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  • July 18, 2019 at 5:42 am
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    Very interesting piece. As a contributing columnist, I try to be mindful that the folks who are reading my work are likely my age or older. None of my kids subscribe to the newspaper or watch TV news. Many of my friends sheepishly admit to dropping their subscriptions because the paper lacks any relevance or bandwidth for them. Our Sunday paper arrives around 8 a.m. We have already eaten breakfast and cleaned up the kitchen and are ready to get on with our day. I dare not complain; I’m lucky she walks the paper to our doorstep.

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  • July 18, 2019 at 5:52 am
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    Wonderful article. On point and I really hope that the industry takes a serious look at your thoughts. Thank you!

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  • July 18, 2019 at 3:26 pm
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    As a former daily newspaper reporter I will never forget the thrill of pulling a copy from the pile to read my stuff. That said, I have long ago shifted to digital subscriptions. I can read them when away and skip back easily a day or so if I missed a day. I agree that the obituaries are a key factor in maintaining my subscriptions. Sad but true.

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  • July 19, 2019 at 9:38 am
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    I recently stopped my sub to the New York Times because I cannot read the small type. I have continued my sub to the Wall Street Journal because their type is larger. Let’s remember, however, that the NYT offers a weekly large print edition containing (sometimes truncated) versions of articles used in the previous week. –Ken MacHarg

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  • July 20, 2019 at 3:04 pm
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    Here in Australia, the dailies have largely shed older journalists. So we have younger journalists writing for an audience that is — largely — a few decades older than them and with quite different interests. Also, there is no longer a mix of people writing newspapers: I worked at the national daily here for 19 years (plus a further nine doing a weekly business column). When I started in newspapers (1962), it was common for reporters to start on country town papers, there were no journalism schools, and reporters often came from working class households (like me). There was a knowledge of what goes on outside boardrooms and wealthier suburbs. Indeed, I got so frustrated that a couple of years ago I wrote a small book, “Newspapers: A Century of Decline”, which shows, among other things, how papers have become separated from their most loyal readers.

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  • July 21, 2019 at 9:09 am
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    There are too many content gaps in most newspapers these days. Yes, it is our fault for not serving this population- as well as many others that are under served and like to buy papers. But in the end, it’s about the math, because it’s a business. Something will get us in the end – dollars to dimes digital ad prices or lack of print customers because of inadequate coverage due to lack of feet on the street.

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  • July 23, 2019 at 6:09 am
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    No mention that print media is all left leaning. Most people don’t want to pay to be offended.

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