By: Jean E. Herskowitz
Imagine a newspaper that is printed on broadsheet from Tuesday through Sunday but switched to tabloid for the Monday edition. Then imagine a paper that was published seven days a week for 126 years but then had to scrap Mondays due to hard times — and three years later was able to bring back the missing edition.
That would be The Frederick News-Post. The beloved community newspaper of Frederick, Md., halted its Monday edition in 2008, only to proudly, albeit cautiously, bring it back Feb. 6.
As the only paper whose primary coverage is the city and county of Frederick (a county of approximately 233,000), the loss of the Monday edition was disappointing for residents as well as advertisers. And while numerous other community papers have had to scale back production in recent years, most have yet to return to pre-recession frequency.
So what brought about the fall, and then the rise, of News-Post Mondays?
Recession takes its toll
In 2008, the FNP moved out of an old downtown building with an Urbanite press and into a newly constructed headquarters with a new, six-tower TKS press capable of printing 70,000 copies per hour. The new press allowed the FNP to diversify its income by branching out into the commercial printing business.
However, approximately seven months later, with a new building on the ledgers, a recession occurring, and the decline of the newspaper industry, the FNP was struggling to make ends meet.
Myron Randall Jr., the current owner of the newspaper — which has been family owned and run since its 1883 inception — clearly remembers the beginning of the recession when advertising dropped precipitously and the paper had to lay off about 17 employees (mostly non-newsroom). “It was very distressing,” he said. “They were people who had been here a long time, like family members.” It was the first time he can remember the company having to let go of employees. The company also reduced employee pension benefits and asked workers to take a one-time, five-day furlough.
About six months after that, the decision was made to cut the Monday edition. However, in the newspaper office, the thought was always that Monday had been “suspended,” not eliminated. The hope was always to bring it back. 2011 was a better year for the FNP. The slight uptick in the economy meant the press was running almost continuously, and a new publisher, Geordie Wilson, joined the management team.
A fresh start
Formerly publisher of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Wilson had worked in journalism in several parts of the country, and had seen and read a lot about the industry when he decided to go to business school to learn electronic publishing. After earning his master’s, he spent time working in Microsoft’s digital media division.
After just a few months at the FNP, Wilson felt that business was stable enough to bring back the Monday edition. “The number-one complaint when I was out in the community was, ‘When’s Monday coming back?’” Wilson said. “You develop the habit of looking for your morning paper on your doorstep. People missed it.”
Wilson said the financial and production hurdles for the paper’s comeback were perhaps not as great as for other community papers that had cut production of one or more days.
Even though the Monday edition was suspended, the newsroom and newsprint expenses had never been eliminated along with it. To make up for Monday’s absence, the paper added a new section to Sunday called the “Monday Advance.” Also, the printing press was busy running. As Wilson pointed out, “We already had press crews here Sunday nights to print our other daily publications. We had the driver infrastructure in place and people lining up to pick up bundles of papers and go out and deliver them every Sunday night and Monday morning. We, in fact, had news staff in here on Sunday writing stories — mostly for the Web.”
There also wasn’t any real competition. The one or two local dailies that give some ink to Frederick news are based outside the county and focus mainly on their own areas. The Washington Post is the main competitor. “Over the past 20 to 30 years the county has leaned increasingly toward D.C.,” Wilson said. But he added that the Washington Post, as a D.C. metro paper, rarely covers Frederick.
The 48-year-old publisher knew the Monday paper would have to come back with a bang to attract essential advertising revenue. While the company naturally wanted to please readers, “mostly it was about wanting to give advertisers a really good reason to be part of the paper,” Wilson said.
“Through some alchemy, some leaps of imagination, we decided to bring our Monday back as a tabloid. So we’re a broadsheet paper with a tabloid on Mondays,” he said.
Monday newspapers, across the board, are generally slimmer, but Wilson didn’t want that for the FNP. “Frankly, if you have two eight-page broadsheet sections, for a total of 16 broadsheet pages, it feels thin and skimpy. On the other hand, a 36-page tabloid feels much richer,” he said.
A tabloid/broadsheet mix has been tried before at other papers, but quite differently.
In January 2009, the Chicago Tribune experimented with a dual format with the goal of improving sales. Less than two years later, it switched back to strictly broadsheet. However, both the tabloid and broadsheet papers were dailies and essentially identical in content. The only difference was that the former was sold at commuter stations, newsstands, and newspaper boxes, while the broadsheet edition continued to be delivered to home subscribers.
The Patriot-News in central Pennsylvania also experimented with a tabloid version of the usual broadsheet in 2005. It lasted about eight months. In that case also, the tabloid was a daily, but it was sold side-by-side with the broadsheet version on newsstands. The tabloid sported a magazine-type cover and was aimed at people too busy to read the normal-sized paper. It carried the headlines of the day but contained a condensed version of articles and dropped certain items such as stock tables and the comics.
Still, Patriot-News editor David Newhouse is nostalgic about the tabloid. Although sales weren’t impressive, he said the idea was ahead of its time. “It was just the wrong thing at that moment, in that market. We might revisit the idea some day,” Newhouse said.
Of course, the FNP tabloid will only be sold Mondays and will not duplicate any other edition, putting it in a whole different realm than the Tribune’s and Patriot-News’ tabloid ventures.
Readers have a say
To confirm that this was the right decision, the paper used two focus groups — paid groups of about 12 readers each. Some group members were recruited through the paper, and others were readers who had let their subscription lapse, citing the lack of a Monday edition. The sales crew also had one-on-one meetings with advertisers to get feedback.
Wilson said the focus groups were invaluable, because “we wanted to know if we were going down a wrong path. If the readers thought a tabloid format was going to be terrible, we wanted to know that.”
The new Monday edition is completely redesigned, with an emphasis on business and sports, and on helping readers meet the new week.
“The fun of this is that we could take the opportunity to rethink what a Monday paper could be and what purpose it serves for our readers,” Wilson said. “We wanted it to be a weekly agenda setter; something that would kick off the workweek.”
The FNP also rethought advertising sales for the tabloid, deciding to sell fixed ad position contracts. “We told advertisers, you’ll have certainty about your ad positions. If there are no other ads on the page in the prototype we show you, there will be no other ads in the actual paper,” Wilson said.
“We were able to sell on frequency contracts,” he said. “We signed people up for 13, 26, or 52 weeks for specific ad positions.”
Wilson said the typical approach to selling ads — and how ads are handled the other six days — is to take as many as you can get. If more pages are needed, they’re added, and ads are inserted wherever they will fit.
Wilson isn’t sure advertisers loved having to make a multi-month commitment, but he said this strategy was effective because it created scarcity. “We’re not just going to take an ad any time it comes in; if you want this, you need to decide and commit to it. It helps people make that decision. We’re virtually sold out for the first month,” he said.
Overall, the community is pleased with the return of a Monday newspaper, and advertisers are happy too, taking the paper’s confidence as a positive sign of the health of the local economy.
The paper has added approximately a dozen new features for the Monday edition. One is “Six Things to Know This Week,” which highlights, as advertised, a half-dozen important upcoming events, such as a city meeting, a big show coming to town, a notice that flags must be flown at half staff Wednesday, and the like. “That’s really something we cribbed from Patch,” Wilson confessed, referring to Patch news sites that run a “Five Things You Need to Know Today” feature. “We said, ‘we’ll do ’em one better.’”
Randall is happy to have Mondays back and, though he acknowledges the paper took a serious hit in 2008, he points to other newspapers in the same situation that had a different outcome. “They declared bankruptcy,” he said, happy that the FNP averted that route.
The last few years have seen the normal amount of staff turnover, Randall said. While the ability to bring back Mondays is encouraging, they won’t yet be creating any new positions. There are about 170 employees today, compared to a pre-recession number of more than 200.
Managing editor Terry Headlee hadn’t been with the paper very long when the layoffs occurred, but he remembers that people took the news hard and that there was a lot of uncertainty in the newsroom from 2008 through 2010. “It was the reality of tough economic times,” he said.
The mood now is “elation,” Headlee said. “I don’t know of any newspaper that took away an edition that is now bringing one back. We’re excited.”
Jean Herskowitz is a freelance writer and lawyer living in Pittsburgh.