By: Mark Fitzgerald And Jennifer Saba
Back in the early 1990s when Hazel Reinhardt of the Media Management Center first suggested some small-market dailies might be better off if they skipped publishing a day or two each week, her musings seemed as close to heresy as you could get in the newspaper industry. After all, newspapers had spent the better part of four decades convincing themselves that a newspaper had to be in the home every single day.
But now, even execs at some big papers are turning the idea over in their heads.
There’s overwhelming evidence, says INMA’s Earl Wilkinson, of less demand for a heavy print product during the week. And the money saved from newsprint and labor could finance revenue-enhancing measures like better marketing promotion and research. Newspapers waste money producing “an oversized product on certain days of the week where there is little or no demand for it,” says Wilkinson, yet they spend just 1% of revenues on marketing and research.
Even Wall Street is beginning to warm to the idea that “daily” doesn’t have to mean publishing seven days a week. Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Ginocchio, for instance, predicts that the core newspaper product of the future will be smaller, and publish perhaps five days a week ? skipping Monday and Tuesday.
Kannon Consulting founder and President Barbara Cohen sees a great future for papers on the weekend, but isn’t so sure the Monday and/or Tuesday edition will survive. “Just like how TV has day-part strategies, newspapers need to have day strategies,” she says. “Monday or Tuesday should be much smaller than it is, maybe only sports and breaking news or maybe make Monday and Tuesday a combined paper.”
Whatever newspapers do, Cohen adds, it should be dramatic.
One paper that took the plunge was the Chicago Defender, which in June 2005 eliminated the Tuesday edition from what had been a five-day publishing schedule. Tuesday was a near-impossible sell for its advertising staff, says Executive Editor Roland S. Martin. Not so coincidentally, six months later the long-struggling black daily posted its first operating profit in two decades. Martin says there are no plans to revive the edition.
The Columbia Missourian is one of those papers constantly thinking of dropping a day, acknowledges Executive Editor Tom Warhover: “We’ve asked ourselves that question every month for probably the last 10 months. And our answer every month has been, ‘Not yet.’ But that doesn’t mean that’ll be our answer next month.” Like other papers, the Missourian is loathe to abandon revenues from print when online revenue, while growing fast, is still a fraction of what the core newspaper makes.
“Plus, a big question becomes, what day would you drop?” asks Warhover. “The answer needs to have a better logic than, ‘Well, let’s just pick one.'”
Too risky to take a day off?
The signs that seven-day publishing is losing favor are clear. Nearly all of the many commuter papers, youth tabs, and Spanish-language dailies that newspapers have launched in recent years are five-day papers. USA Today, which turns 25 next year, has always published five issues a week, though its weekend edition stays on the racks through Sunday.
And as the Media Management Center’s Reinhardt points out, “In the grand scheme of things, [seven-day papers] are a relatively recent phenomenon.” The idea of “being in the home every day” didn’t really take hold on the industry until well into the 1960s. Reinhardt notes, too, that customers skip days as well: “A high proportion of single-copy buyers don’t buy every day.”
As sensible as the solution of dropping days seems, however, Reinhardt notes that there are operational and editorial barriers, “so there’s some element of risk.”
Too much risk, says Miles Groves, the media economist who runs MG Strategic Research in Washington, D.C. “It seems to me a way to hasten the erosion of the franchise,” he warns. “I just have to wonder how many of the regular loyal readers that represent the core in the franchise are looking for major tweaks like that on the Monday paper. Bottom line, it makes financial sense. I’m not convinced it makes financial sense in the long term.”
The Savannah (Ga.) Morning News has implemented radical changes at its paper, including the elimination of its TV grid. But dropping any day would be going too far, says Publisher Julian Miller: “I don’t think that’s fair to the community. Basically, you’re saying, ‘Hey, you’re not worth putting out a paper on this day.’ You just can’t abandon your readers ? or your advertisers.”
Rather than dropping Mondays, many newspapers are beginning to rethink what they put in that edition.
The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison is considering a Monday paper that would be heavy on sports and “some sort of summary of what happened over the weekend,” says Editor Ellen Foley.
“But here’s the rub,” she adds. “You can sit in my office and take phone calls and e-mails which I get from people saying there is too much in the paper ? it just piles up ? but if you start taking stuff out of it, they get mad, even stuff like stock listings. If you are going to radically change your product, you’d better make sure you are giving them more of something they want instead of taking stuff away from them.”
Consumers are ready for a different kind of Monday paper, says Michael P. Smith, the Media Management Center’s executive director. Proprietary research conducted for two big-city papers suggests the Monday edition would be very successful if it were “a much smaller paper that focused on starting the work week, starting the school week” with content about “how I can organize my life.”
Ironically, newspapers need not be heavy on sports. “We get all bent out of shape over sports, but the research shows that only 20% of people who pick up a paper read the sports section,” he says. But, Smith adds, try telling that to the sports editor and circulation director: “Their gut tells them that sports pushes circulation on Mondays.”
And that’s about where newspapers are left in considering the radical step of downsizing frequency: What does their gut tell them?
“We go back and forth on that question,” the Missourian’s Warhover says, “and I think we are unfortunately where everybody else is: smack-dab in the middle. We’re trying to bring more things online, but we’re reluctant to give up that core product because there’s so much revenue tied up in it. It’s not a lot of revenue for us ? but it is revenue.”