Sunday Sections Evolve to Lure More Readers

By: E&P Staff

Updated at 10:45 a.m., Sept. 3

The Sunday paper, long the most profitable part of the newspaper business, is starting to suffer from cash-cow disease. As chronicled by Lucia Moses in our Aug. 11 issue, circulation has been flagging faster on Sunday than on weekdays for several years. Demographic and lifestyle changes bode ill for Sunday reading. In response, editors are shaking up content, attempting to find the right mix for the modern, time-challenged reader — eliminating some features, and tweaking or dramatically revising others.

“We want to engage people who might migrate to another medium,” says John Yemma, deputy managing editor/Sunday for The Boston Globe. Here’s a report on changes in several important components of the Sunday paper, from the TV book to travel.

Sunday Magazine

By Joe Strupp

If you simply look at numbers, the future of Sunday newspaper magazines is dark. Since 1981, when 50 newspapers had their own weekend magazines, the count has dropped dramatically, according to the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, which kept tabs — until its own demise two years ago. The number dwindled to 28 in 1999, and to fewer than 20 today. Some of the holdouts have shrunk or switched to newsprint or broadsheet to save money. “It wasn’t doing well,” explains Jim Crutchfield, publisher of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, which closed its Sunday magazine in 2001. “It would simply cost more money to make it valuable enough to keep.”

While profits abound at The New York Times Sunday Magazine — considered an exception in the newspaper industry — most papers barely break even or take a loss on their versions. Most newspaper executives have either disbanded their Sunday magazines or cut costs to keep them going, contending that the mags should only exist if they support themselves. Added to the high cost is the growing circulation of Parade and USA Weekend, making an independent Sunday magazine seem less necessary.

“It was a very expensive proposition,” says Robert Hall, publisher and chairman of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, who killed the Inquirer Sunday magazine last month. “We were able to move most of the content into a new section.”

Still, life has not gone completely out of the Sunday magazine world. Editors and publishers at the San Francisco Chronicle and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland say the magazines are such an important editorial element, they are making them work. The key: A push to provide something different, as well as an organized effort to attract advertising.

“To be successful, you have to have the commitment of the publisher and the advertising department,” says Ellen Burbach, editor of The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, which received its own advertising salesperson for the first time several years ago and has seen ad revenue increase in the past year. “You have to understand that you sell retention value — it is a long-range approach.”

The magazine concentrates on selling the product’s unique readership to would-be advertisers. Not only does it draw more high-end readers, but it also has a higher pass-along value than the main paper. Burbach, who took over the editorship five years ago, promotes many themed editions. “We also make sure that 99 percent of our stories are about Northwest Ohio,” she said. To cut costs, the magazine switched from glossy to newsprint three years ago.

When the San Francisco Chronicle magazine cut to bi-weekly publication in 2002, readers revolted. “We were getting completely hammered,” Editor Phil Bronstein says about costs, declining to reveal how much was being lost on the magazine. “But then we decided we ought to either kill it, or bring it back every week.”

Editors vowed to give readers more compelling articles. “We wanted more serious content, not just something to flip through,” declares Alison Biggar, the magazine’s editor. “We also created very local departments and brought in writer essays.” The Sunday food reviews were moved from the “Datebook” listings section to the magazine. Bronstein says the product was made a new priority for the Chronicle‘s ad sales team, which dedicated one person to sell solely for the Sunday publication. “It still loses money during the course of the year,” he admits. “But it breaks even more often, and even makes a buck or two some weeks.”

Changes are also afoot at The Boston Globe Magazine, which is undergoing a redesign. Although the publication makes about $1.5 million in profit on $11 million in annual revenue, according to editor Nick King, it must improve to maintain its place. King credits the magazine’s 10 special theme issues each year with pumping revenue, “but we still have a slow and steady decline in advertising.”

The editor blames some of the advertising fallout for most Sunday magazines on the changing face of the newspaper around them. “It used to be that Sunday magazines were the only color in the paper, the only place where you could write long, and the only insert,” he observes. “Now that has changed.”

One of the more remarkable stories involves the Rutland (Vt.) Herald, which appears to be the smallest daily paper (circulation 22,096) with its own Sunday magazine. Along with its sister daily, The Times-Argus in Montpelier, Vt., the Herald keeps the money-losing Vermont Sunday Magazine around, at 16 to 20 pages each week.

“Our surveys have indicated it is a popular section,” says Dirk Van Susteren, who has run the newsprint magazine for three years. “People like the style of writing, the bigger pieces…. You can’t look at it from a profit point of view,” he adds. “Does page A-1 make a profit?”

Book Review

By Joe Strupp

If the number of Sunday magazines seems low, stand-alone Sunday book sections have become a profound rarity. According to our count, only six newspapers — The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Diego Union-Tribune — have true book review sections. In each case, except for The New York Times Book Review, profits are non-existent.

“One of the problems of stand-alones is that they are not carrying their own weight,” says Chip McGrath, editor of the New York Times section. “Most cannot, because it is hard to get national book ads.”

That has not stopped those six from keeping these book sections going, with some cutbacks (even at the Times). In each case, editors admit their existence is based on both loyal readers and business-side executives who understand the need for a separate book report. “Book reviews garner only about 30% of the readership, which is low compared to the A-section or style section,” says Marie Arana, editor of The Washington Post Book World. “But the percentage of readers who will actively buy from the book section is greater” — a point that is actively marketed to advertisers.

Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times book review for seven years, blames the dearth of separate book sections on newspaper executives failing to perceive some of the positive aspects, including the promotion of reading, which he says can help the newspapers. “Most newspapers have a long anti-intellectual tradition in which they believe readers can’t understand a vocabulary that is higher than a third grader,” he observes. “Few newspapers consider the publication of books as news.”

But most still come back to the advertising limitations when explaining why most book reviews do not have their own home on Sunday. “So much of the ad money is being poured into the The New York Times,” says Arana. “It has a good hold on the elite of the whole country.”

Editors at other major papers agree. “The book publisher trade is well-known for keeping advertising in tight circles,” says Rick Daniels, president of The Boston Globe, which runs four to five pages of book reviews in its “Sunday Ideas” section and recently added a page. “But I’m not sure that having a separate section is a definition of having great content to run.”

Others agree the subject is important, and can be well-covered within existing sections. “The interest is here for the content,” says Teresa Weaver, book editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which expanded its book review from one-and-a-half pages to two in the Sunday paper.

The San Francisco Chronicle, however, took some heat when it decided to fold its Sunday book review into the existing Sunday Datebook entertainment tab last year. Editor Phil Bronstein says readers did not care that the paper was providing the same number of pages for books — the lack of a separate section sparked anger. “It was a pretty small, but vocal and aggressive group who objected,” Bronstein recalls. The separate section returned six months later with the paper promising a greater effort to sell book review ads.


By Mark Fitzgerald

With America’s travel bug still slowed by economic uncertainty and security concerns, more Sunday travel sections are adopting the motto “There’s no place like home.” So say goodbye to the glories of weeklong treks into the jungles of Java.

“We are doing much more regional travel than we were a few years ago, and we’re not doing much international travel anymore,” says Mary Lou Nolan, assistant managing editor/features at The Kansas City Star and a regional director of the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors. “With the economy the way it is, we don’t think that’s where our readers want to be.” The Star is featuring nearby tourist spots such as Branson, Mo., but with coverage that is more penetrating, Nolan says. The paper is also pushing coverage of regional cities such as St. Louis, Chicago and Denver.

The 9/11 terror attacks shrunk travel newsholes nearly everywhere, but the Star and other papers are seeing an ad rebound that is opening pages again. Earlier this year, when The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel fired up its new presses and moved to a new building, it renamed its travel section “Go” and gave heavy promotion in TV ads, rack cards and contests. In the process, the News-Sentinel decided to chase a younger audience with more features about adventure travel. The paper also emphasizes regional travel with a monthly feature called “A Day Away” which highlights destinations less than 10 hours away by car.

But this new emphasis on close-to-home travel, combined with the travel industry slump, has roiled relations between newspapers and freelancers. Longtime issues such as pay and the propriety of allowing some expenses to be picked up by a tourist authority or travel industry corporation are more likely to be flashpoints. Some freelancers have become disenchanted, says Alabama-based travel writer Lynn Grisard Fullman — who works with her photographer husband Milton Fullman, the chairman of the Society
of American Travel Writer’s (SATW) Freelance Council. “The situation for freelancers is terrible, the worst a lot of us old-timers can ever remember,” Lynn Fullman says. Newspapers haven’t changed their pay scale of $100 to $300 an article in years, and now they increasingly refuse any reporting on trips that were sponsored or partially subsidized-while almost never paying a freelancer’s travel expenses.

“The question is,” she says, “if you go on a trip and don’t pay full price, can you be objective? Well, I don’t like having my integrity questioned [as if] I’m going to write nice things about a place that had roaches crawling on the wall because they gave me a piece of chicken or something.”

Members of the Midwest Travel Writers Association are constantly bumping up against the restriction, says President Mike Whye, a freelance writer based in Council Bluffs, Iowa: “Some papers, and I won’t name them, have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy — which is very kind of them, really, because without (sponsored) travel, the travel-writing market would just flat die.”

Commenting on the latest trends, Whye says, “Adventure travel? Sure, younger people are heavily invested in SUVs and, by God, they want to use them. So there is that market out there.”

Freelancers cite two other worsening complaints: newspapers demanding all rights to a story, and/or paying writers slowly. “A lot of us have just gotten to the point where we say, the hell with newspapers,” says Fullman. “They’re just not worth it.”


By Dave Astor

Some people are sad about the state of the Sunday funnies. Surveys show the comics section remains one of the most-read parts of the Sunday paper, yet the way it’s treated doesn’t always reflect its popularity.

The biggest complaint is shrinking size. “They’re making comics smaller and smaller, and cramming them together,” says “Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker, whose King Features strip started in 1950.

“We’ve lost the grandeur of Sunday comics,” agrees “Non Sequitur” creator Wiley Miller of Universal Press Syndicate, recalling the days when papers ran only one or two strips on a Sunday page — allowing for much more lavish art. Now, many papers intent on cutting newsprint costs are squeezing five comics into a page and reducing the number of pages in the section.

This reality is unlikely to change, so cartoonists need to “get over it” and “maximize the space we have,” Miller adds. For him, this means still doing elaborate art with complex color, and using a vertical format that enables papers to use the Sunday “Non Sequitur” without dropping other strips. Horizontal comics making innovative use of their space include “Zits” by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman of King Features.

But Miller notes that a number of Sunday comics are only slightly larger, color versions of daily episodes. “We owe it to the readers, and we owe it to the newspapers who buy our features, to put more effort into our Sunday work,” he says.

Certainly, Sunday comics color is looking better as more creators do their own coloring. Yet cartoonists have little control over the way the comics often get buried inside Sunday editions rather than wrap around them, and continue to look boxy and static even as other sections get lively makeovers. The 21st Century Comics report of 1985 recommended changes such as running large drawings of cartoon characters amidst the Sunday strips. But with the 21st century actually here, the Sunday funnies’ design looks pretty much the same as it did 18 years ago.

Why don’t papers pay more attention to these sections? Some theorize that text-oriented editors don’t believe the comics are that important or are jealous of their popularity compared to, say, editorials.

Sunday comics sections also don’t bring in as much ad revenue as papers would like. “A big problem is lead time,” says Mike Peterson, the educational services director who deals with comics at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y. Because many Sunday comics sections aren’t printed in-house, ad deadlines may be too far in advance for some local companies. “With new technologies and advanced printing presses, more newspapers should explore bringing printing in-house again,” says Lisa Klem Wilson, vice president and general manager of United Media.

National advertisers that once made Sunday-comics buys now often prefer TV commercials or newspaper preprints. Meredith Johnston, director of magazines, comics, and preprints for Metro Newspaper Advertising Services, adds that some newspapers have shrunk their Sunday comics sections so much that there may not be room for an ad even if one came in.

Why advertise in the comics? “It’s a family medium, and the readership and reader loyalty is enormous,” says Johnston, citing three among a number of reasons.

A higher percentage of kids read the Sunday comics than the daily comics –meaning the increasing number of strips that are topical, controversial, and/or a bit risque tend to be less so on Sundays. “It’s more toward the ‘G’ level than the ‘R’ level,” says Carl Nelson, editor of the Nelson Report newsletter, which often discusses comics trends.

Nelson adds that the Sunday funnies are still “a critical entry point” into newspapers for kids, who hopefully go on to also read other sections as they get older.


By Shawn Moynihan

Say what you will about fewer people reading the Sunday paper, but there’s one section many readers remain passionate about: the TV section. Make the slightest change in its content, and readers will be on the phone within minutes.

“The three things in a newspaper that you can never mess with are the TV book, the comics and the puzzles,” says Kyrie O’Connor, assistant managing editor of features at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. “If you’re going to do anything at all with those, you’d better know what you’re doing.”

In January, the Courant cut its 52-page TV book down to 36 pages. The daytime and overnight program listings were removed, leaving only prime-time and movie listings. Reaction was swift — and angry. Following hundreds of complaint calls, the overnight and daytime listings were soon converted to a smaller format and put back into the book.

Four years ago, The Dallas Morning News changed its TV section from a quarterfold to a tab. It’s an idea that is picking up steam, judging by the amount of calls Arts Editor Rick Holter has received from other newspapers. “You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve talked to in the last three months about this,” he says.

The Morning News‘ change included, among other revisions, raising the amount of channels listed from 38 to 70, and a switch from vertical grids to horizontal ones. Again, readers were quick to respond: The first week, the News received 6,000 calls and/or e-mails, of which 5,500 were subscribers with an axe to grind. Eventually, readers got used to it.

With so many TV sections shrinking these days, “The quality of the books isn’t what it used to be,” says Barbara Needleman, vice president for entertainment products for Tribune Media Services (TMS). After making a majority investment in competing media information provider TVData in May 2001, Tribune now provides TV programming information and features to more than 4,000 customers, including The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Miami Herald. Also, TMS now paginates nearly the entire TV book for more than 250 newspapers. For example, Tribune takes care of everything on the Chicago Tribune TV book except for the cover.

But not everyone is likely to let Tribune have all the fun in coming up with content. Bob Laurence, TV critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune, says it is a point of pride for the paper to concoct its own TV cover story.
The Tribune is just one of hundreds of newspapers that have faced the problem of expanding listings on digital cable and Satellite TV. As the program listing grids get smaller in order to accommodate the data, “You can only go so far before you’re handing out magnifying glasses, door to door,” Laurence jokes.

Some papers, however, have shifted responsibility for the TV book from an editorial product to the advertising department. One example is The Kansas City Star, whose ad department took over the TV section in late 1999; content-wise, the book is purely a Tribune Media Services product.

“Traditionally, [TV sections] don’t make money. They’re circulation-driving pieces,” says Ted Massing, the newspaper’s sales manager for special sections and projects. On Aug. 10, the Star‘s TV book was cut back from 48 to 32 pages.

Not all papers are feeling the squeeze; the St. Paul Pioneer Press TV book, at a healthy 72 pages, may expand due to a surplus of ads. And in some cases, newspapers have discovered that Sunday TV book features aren’t critical to their readers. At The Sun in Baltimore, TV Editor Claudette Arons says 10 pages have been cut from the section in the last few years, and in the process of scaling back, cover features and reviews had to go. But items like the TV crossword, the Q&A section and children’s highlights were elements that readers refused to do without.

One paper that has been working to establish an identity for its Sunday TV book in the past year is the New York Post. The Manhattan tabloid has only run it since September 2002. TV Editor Mike Shain says his goal was to trim the fat from what has become the industry norm and provide a sharp, good-looking product that’s long on opinion and color, and short on movie listings. At eight pages, the Post‘s TV section is a pre-press insert that is among the most concise — and best-looking — in the business.


By Carl Sullivan

In terms of design, the Sunday edition has traditionally been “the spoiled child of the week,” as one newspaper art director calls it.

Lavished with the gifts of space and time for layout and graphics work, the Sunday paper is almost always flashier than its Monday-through-Saturday siblings — better and larger photography, bolder typography, and more magazine-like layouts. “The Sunday paper can look very special because with planning, there is the time, the space and most importantly, the content to make it so,” says Nanette Bisher, creative director at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Publishers have also given artists more leeway on Sunday because they want the product to look like it’s worth the higher price tag — “something to compel readers to part with a dollar, versus 25 cents,” says Ron Reason, vice president/creative director at newspaper designer Garcia Media.

But there’s a danger to planning the Sunday front page around canned or “featurey” stories, says Reason’s boss and noted designer Mario Garcia. “Those very wonderful centerpieces have robbed the Sunday front page of its newsy edge,” he says. “I have never found evidence to convince me that readers expect their Sunday front page to be less newsy than Thursday or Tuesday. … In our present world, newsmakers and news events do not take the weekend off.”

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