To Be Single and Attractive Again

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Talk to three circulation directors these days, and you’ll get four different theories about why single-copy sales have dropped severely in the last six months or so. Maybe it’s because former buyers are now getting their news from their local paper’s Web site. Or maybe it’s that newspapers are pushing third-party sponsored copies too aggressively. In big city markets, the problem could be that single-copy readers stopped buying and started picking up all those new free commuter papers.

There’s even a theory that all the big news breaking lately is, paradoxically, hurting newspaper sales. The argument goes like this: Big stories like Iraq, the death of the Pope, and the fight over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube hogged above-the-fold real estate, pushing off the front page the local news that is more important to single-copy buyers. Chase local away from the window of a newsrack, and you chase away single-copy buyers, too, this explanation goes.

“I don’t think there’s one single reason why retail sales are depressed, so therefore there’s no single solution to it. It’s a complex problem, a difficult problem,” says Tony Mineart, circulation director at the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune.

What circulation directors do know is that across the country, at big papers and small, single-copy sales are running about 5% to 6% less than last year. That’s a big problem ? not just because newspapers need all the sales they can get to counter the long-range decline in circulation, but also because single-copy buyers are precisely the audience dailies are having the hardest time attracting: a younger and more ethnically and racially diverse demographic.

It’s also one that hits home for the Herald-Tribune’s Mineart. Single-copy is down 4% to 5% at the 100,294-circulation newspaper even as home delivery has been growing at an annual pace of about 2.2%. Looking at the industry as a whole, Mineart says newspapers have “cannibalized their single-copy bases” in their recent aggressive efforts to build third-party sales, and convert single-copy buyers to home delivery.

Only now are newspapers beginning to take single-copy more seriously, says Hugh McGarry, director of single-copy sales and marketing for the Denver Newspaper Agency and chairman of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) task force on single-copy. McGarry says the key battleground for single-copy is in the stores, not in the streets.

“I think the days of boxes selling 50 or 60 copies in a downtown area have really gone away,” he says. “You have to focus on relationships with retailers.” Newspapers increasingly are hiring single-copy managers with experience in getting good position on supermarket shelves, and designing promotions to get into more than one place in stores. Many are also increasing the take retailers get from newspaper sales.

The single-copy crisis has also prompted one smaller paper in Virginia to look at an old idea: The single-copy edition. These editions, replated for retail and street sales, used to be quite common among medium-sized papers, says John Murray, NAA’s vice president for circulation. “Somewhere along the way, the conventional wisdom became, ‘Does it make a difference?’ And that’s a tough thing to prove,” he says.

But now the 21,139-circulation Danville (Va.) Register & Bee says it has proven it. During the week of March 7-12, the circulation department basically created its own edition ? choosing the stories, writing their own headlines, and laying out the front page ? and tested it in stores and in newsracks against the edition put out by the newsroom. The single-copy and home-delivery copies were distributed evenly between retail outlets and boxes, and in five locations the two editions were displayed in side-by-side racks.

The result: On weekdays, the edition created by the circulation department outsold the newsroom’s version by 277%.

Dennis Stonebraker, the Register & Bee’s circulation director, said the single-copy edition was created after analyzing the best-selling and worst-selling front pages over the last quarter of 2004 ?when the paper’s single-copy sales dropped by more than 10% some months. There were some common characteristics to the days, he says. Front pages featuring politics, “feel- good” stories and national weather sold poorly, while those featuring local weather, accidents, and controversy sold well.

“The most obvious [conclusion] was that the news had to be local,” Stonebraker says. So that’s what went on the circulation department’s front pages, in bold fashion. “FIRE!” shouted one headline, against a background of flames. “At first the newsroom thought we were stepping on their territory, and that some of what we were doing was a little sensationalistic,” he says.

“Of course, there’s egos involved, to be honest with you,” says Register & Bee Managing Editor Arnold Hendrix. The newsroom took the competition very seriously, he says. At the same time, Hendrix had long invited Stonebraker to news budget meetings to get a feel for how stories would sell on the street.

The paper is still deciding whether to undertake the expense of a single-copy edition, but Stonebraker says the test was successful not simply by statistics ? including jumping street sales by 7.3% in one week ? but by another measure: “The most satisfying response I got was from a 30-year-old African-American man who walked into the office, and asked why we weren’t doing the [single-copy edition] any more, and told us he probably wouldn’t buy the regular paper any more. That was exactly the market we were targeting, and just the response we wanted.”

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