By: Todd Shields
The last time The Washington Post raised its daily newsstand price, inflation was a double-digit economic scourge, Ronald Reagan was president, and a young quarterback named Joe Montana was on his way to the first of three Super Bowl titles.
That was 20 years ago, in 1981, and now the dismal advertising market of 2001 is forcing the Post to again raise its single-copy sales price. On Dec. 31, a Monday, the paper’s newsstand cost will go to 35 cents from 25 cents. Rates for home delivery will remain unchanged, at a quarter a day from Monday to Saturday, and no Sunday rates will be affected.
The change leaves the Post, with a weekday circulation of 759,864 (737,538 under the former Audit Bureau of Circulations rules), charging less than the 50-cent daily price that has become the de facto norm in many newspaper markets. But it nonetheless represents a reluctant bow to tough economic times — what Washington Post Co. Chairman and CEO Donald Graham calls an annus horribilis. Advertising revenue at the paper was off 13% through early December, with recruitment off 37%.
The paper, reluctant to cut costs in a way that might harm editorial quality, was left with the increased newsstand price among its limited options. With single-copy sales accounting for about 212,000 copies daily, or roughly 28% of the Post‘s daily circulation, the change would boost revenue by about $127,200 a week, assuming single-copy sales volume remains unchanged.
“We’re grateful that we could keep the newsstand price at 25 cents for so long,” said Post Publisher Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. “We needed to adjust the mix [of advertising and circulation revenue] in order to continue to produce our quality newspaper while still keeping the price as low as practically possible.”
Research indicates little sensitivity among consumers to single-copy price hikes — up to a point. The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) surveyed single-copy buyers last spring in Dayton, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oklahoma City; and Reno, Nev. It found 99% of respondents agreed that a newsstand price of 25 cents was a good value, 92% agreed that a price of 35 cents was a good value, and 75% agreed that a price of 50 cents was a good value, according to William P. Johnson, director of circulation marketing for the NAA.
Any erosion in the Post‘s single-copy sales would be more likely to come from its rack sales, rather than its increasingly important over-the-counter outlets, Johnson said. “It’s not really the amount of money — it’s coming up with two coins,” he said. Industrywide, single-copy sales account for roughly one-fifth of newspaper sales, with rack sales about one-third of the weekday single-copy sales, Johnson said.
At the Post, Ted Lutz, a vice president for business management, said the paper hoped to offset any losses in single-copy sales by increased subscriptions raised from consumers attracted by the value of the unchanged home-delivery price.