Financial Gains to be Found in Cutting Frequency?

By: JIM SALTER The Hannibal Courier-Post proclaims that it is "Missouri's oldest daily newspaper, serving since 1838." But it isn't quite as daily as it used to be.

In February, publisher Jack Whitaker decided to stop printing on Mondays, the day that had the least advertising. The small daily, which has a circulation of about 8,000, now prints Tuesday through Saturday. Although he wouldn't share financial details, Whitaker said that eliminating one day of production expenses has improved the newspaper's bottom line.

He doesn't sugarcoat the response in the community, however.

"People are sad," Whitaker said in a telephone interview. "The one comment I hear more than anything else is, 'Bring back Monday.'"

In an industry struggling with bankruptcy filings, diminished advertising and the exodus of many readers to the Internet, about 100 U.S. newspapers have either reduced the number of days they publish or gone to the Web entirely. The risks and benefits were discussed among newspaper editors meeting this week in St. Louis.

Generally, newspapers that have made the transition say they're better off financially. It does not appear that any of the newspapers that recently reduced their publication frequency have changed course and added days back.

In March, the Detroit Free Press cut home delivery to the three days of the week that generate the most advertising revenue ? Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The Detroit News, which is owned by a separate company but published with the Free Press under a joint operating agreement, goes to homes only on Thursdays and Fridays. It doesn't have a Sunday edition.

Printed versions of the Detroit newspapers can still be purchased every day at newsstands. A free Web site is available to everyone, while a new electronic edition with coupons, interactive maps and other features is available to print subscribers only.

The effort has been successful in many ways, Free Press editor Paul Anger told about 100 journalists at the Associated Press Managing Editors conference.

Besides saving money on distribution, newsprint and labor, the change has strengthened the newspaper's multimedia presence because reporters and editors are now more focused on the Web, Anger said. As a result, he said, the Free Press now has tighter writing, stronger headlines and a more vibrant design ? both in print and online.

"I'm not here to tell you we're home free in Detroit," Anger told the crowd, which consisted largely of editors from major dailies. "I'm not here to tell you, 'Try it, you'll like it.' But so far, so good."

For years, newspapers were so profitable that it wouldn't make sense to reduce publication days. Mark Fitzgerald, editor at large for the industry magazine Editor & Publisher, recalled that when he became a journalist in the late 1970s many dailies were adding Saturday editions.

"The idea then was we've got to be in the house every single day," Fitzgerald said. "It's clear now there's a change in thinking, that some papers on Monday and Tuesday are just not worth the expense of printing and delivering a paper that just doesn't have much advertising support."

The decisions to reduce publication days come after publishers have already tried other cost-cutting moves, including layoffs, wage freezes and reductions in newsprint use by making newspaper pages smaller.

Ken Doctor, media analyst for Outsell Inc., warned that cutting days of publication can backfire, even with the savings it generates.

"What they're doing is breaking their readers' daily habit," Doctor said. "They're taking a risk in doing that. It may be that the risk pays off for them, but the problem is, the readers are less likely to come back."

Recent circulation numbers could help illustrate that dynamic.

At the Detroit Free Press, average daily circulation for the April-September period was down 9.6 percent from the same period of 2008, to 269,729. That was slightly better than the national average, which was a decline of 10.6 percent. However, many Detroit-area readers appeared to still want a daily newspaper delivered. The Oakland Press of nearby Pontiac saw its circulation increase 7.3 percent in the most recent six-month reporting period.

A handful of the 90 daily newspapers operated by GateHouse Media Inc. have cut publication days, said Brad Dennison, vice president of news and interactive. He said those newspapers' finances have improved.

He didn't rule out other GateHouse newspapers following suit, but said improving market conditions make it less likely. GateHouse publishes such newspapers as the Journal Star of Peoria, Ill., and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass.

"My sense is that when things were really rough last year and early this year, newspapers were looking at anything they could do," Dennison said. "I think smaller markets are stabilizing."

One of GateHouse's properties is the Hannibal Courier-Post, in the Mississippi River town of 17,000 where Mark Twain grew up and briefly worked at the newspaper.

Whitaker still worries about how readers are served without the Monday print edition. The online edition is frequently updated, but spotty access to broadband in northeast Missouri limits the reach and effectiveness of the Web service.

For readers who rely on the printed newspaper, the gap between Saturday and Tuesday can be troublesome. Local sports results and obituaries can be late by the time they are reported in Tuesday's newspaper.

Anger, the Detroit Free Press editor, said he was pleased to see his newspaper's Internet site increasing its audience. Traffic for the combined free sites for the News and Free Press rose 14 percent over last year, he said.

The printed product still has its place, he said, but times have changed.

"The milkman doesn't deliver fresh anymore and doctors don't make house calls, either," Anger told the APME crowd. "This is a new era."


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