By: Alan D. Mutter
Why do Sunday newspapers cost so much?
As I picked up the Sunday New York Times at a Starbucks in a leafy neighborhood in Chicago, the 20-something woman behind the counter started to ring up $2.99, the going rate for the Sunday Chicago Tribune.
“Actually,” I said, “it’s $6.”
“It is?” she said incredulously.
“Yeah,” said the youthful male colleague beside her. “Why would anyone spend that kind of money for a newspaper?”
“Well, the Sunday paper has lots of special sections that you don’t get during the week, like a magazine, book reviews and travel,” I said. “And lots of people buy the Sunday paper for the coupons and the ads,” even though I knew my NYT would contain no local classifieds or Best Buy circulars.
“I guess so,” said the young man. “I have looked at the paper at my grandparents’ house a couple of times, but I still don’t see why anyone would spend that kind of money on a newspaper.”
This mini-focus group gave me lots to think about as I walked back to my sister-in-law’s house.
First and foremost was the question of how newspaper publishers could sell the value of their truly valuable products to the sub-geezer set. With studies consistently showing that two-thirds of the print audience is over the age of 55, newspapers clearly aren’t making the grade with 20-somethings, 30-somethings and even most 40-somethings.
Second and equally vexing was the question raised by the Starbucks lad: Why are Sunday papers so ridiculously expensive?
And then it hit me: The answer to both questions is to drastically drop the price of Sunday papers in order to remove price as the formidable barrier that it represents to first-time, fallen-away and wavering readers.
Whether they argue that newspapers cost too much or that they don’t have time to read them, people who don’t buy newspapers are really saying that papers are more expensive than they are worth. Consumers daunted by weekday editions priced at $1—or more—are hopelessly repelled by Sunday products costing twice as much, if not more.
There is a better way.
If publishers reduced the steep prices of their Sunday products, they could attract new and former customers to boost circulation on the day of the week that typically delivers half of their advertising revenues and often more than half of their profits. To offset the decline in circulation revenue, increased Sunday readership ought to attract more advertising.
Although publishers may argue that Sunday newspapers are premium products deserving of premium pricing, they need to face the fact that a growing number of consumers don’t agree with them.
After analyzing a random sample of the nation’s daily newspapers between 2004 and 2014, I found that the industry’s print circulation has dropped precipitously in the last decade.
Total weekday sales among the nation’s 1,300-plus newspapers plunged 47 percent in the decade to a daily average of approximately 29.1 million as of March of this year, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media. Aggregate Sunday circulation in the same period dropped 40 percent to a weekly average of approximately 34.7 million.
Thus, only a quarter of the nation’s 115.2 million households today consume a weekday paper and only 30 percent of households take Sunday papers.
With more than two-thirds of the nation’s families not consuming newspapers, there is considerable upside for publishers who do a better job of conveying the value proposition of their products.
Of all the audience-building options at their disposal, cheaper pricing for quality Sunday papers would be the best bet. Here’s why:
From special sections to comics to op-ed columns, the content in the Sunday paper is more comprehensive, and therefore more compelling to read, than any other edition of the week. Because Sunday papers carry more advertising and coupons than any other day, the typical edition has the potential to pay for itself many times over. Since it is published on the day that many people get a break from their ordinary routines, the Sunday paper represents the greatest opportunity to command attention on a day that Mom isn’t rushing off to work and Dad isn’t hustling the kids to school.
Although the Sunday paper ought be the gateway to attracting new readers—as well as keeping existing ones—most publishers price the product so aggressively that they turn off all but their aging core readers.
Markets support premium pricing when demand is high and supplies are low. With an abundance of news, information, entertainment and advertising available through the free or exceedingly cheap digital media, consumers today have many more choices than in 1993, when the Internet was a whippersnapper and total Sunday circulation in the U.S. peaked at 62.6 million.
If publishers want to sustain the biggest and most profitable revenue source that they have, they need to get real about the pricing of their Sunday products.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today consults with media companies on technology and technology companies on the media. He blogs at Reflections of Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).