Flat is the new growth, many would say, when it comes to declining volume of daily newspaper print circulation, especially as success has been found in raising prices among the most loyal subscribers.
So maybe it’s time for publishers to radically lean in to serving and retaining their most loyal print readers—the elderly.
I’ve read a lot of lengthy, handwritten or typed-and-snail-mailed letters from print edition subscribers in their 70s and 80s, usually written in response to a price increase or renewal notice. After nominal objection to price, their real passion spills out.
Why can’t we deliver the paper to their doorstep like we used to (they’re not as mobile as they used to be and worried about an icy driveway in the winter), or get it there at a consistent time to fit their early morning breakfast routine?
Why are our bills so confusing? Why is putting the paper on hold while they’re in Florida such a frustrating process now? Why do they have to wait on hold to talk to someone from out of state who doesn’t seem familiar with our newspaper and can’t actually make a decision if they have a special request? Why can’t they get someone in charge on the phone?
Why do we keep making the size of type smaller (since we haven’t changed anything, it might actually be that their eyesight is getting worse)? Can’t we hire a proofreader and do something about all those typos and grammar mistakes?
Newspaper publishers have gone through stages of dealing with the print decline—trying to make print editions appeal to a younger audience with youth sections, edgier content and splashier and more colorful layouts; trying to incorporate all kinds of tie-ins and promotion of online content in the print edition, hoping that the combination of experiences breeds loyalty; and neglecting print altogether as they focused on growing a less lucrative digital audience.
Fast-forward and you have a remaining core group of print subscribers who are older than ever, and print editions that are mostly frozen in whatever stage of tweaking when publishers stopped thinking about their evolution. You also have a limited but perhaps significant pool of older, engaged people in your community who have canceled their subscriptions in recent years because we failed them.
It’s time to zero in on what they want in a print edition, and that means questioning some assumptions about print’s relationship to the broader digital news ecosystem.
A Pew Research Center study of daily print newspaper readership found that as much as half of this audience reads the news in print only. So assuming that they’ve already read a story that just missed the previous day’s print edition could be wrong. Assuming that they get their world-nation news elsewhere could be wrong. Most likely, they’re looking for as well-rounded a picture of the news of their community, region, state, nation and world in print as possible.
Maybe the formula for print subscriber retention includes increasing newshole to provide more national wire content and late previous-day box scores (that we all pay for anyway) and increasing the size of type to be friendly to aging eyeballs.
What other kinds of content will inform and delight an older print audience? History and nostalgia, longer features, puzzles. They have leisure time to spend on these things that a younger audience does not.
Why aren’t we treating the obituary pages, from a design and editing perspective, as one of the most important sections of the newspaper? We might joke about it, but what could be more important than the deaths of loyal readers’ contemporaries? And if a Tim Conway or Doris Day dies, it deserves major treatment. These are the stars of our readers’ youth.
The same kind of thought process could be applied to local news and information. It will likely lead to quite a divergence between newspapers’ print editions and digital presence, but end up serving both audiences more effectively.
The cost implications of the distribution and customer service element of the problem could be more difficult to fix given how much publishers have changed the cost structure to hold on to profits in recent years. But if our most loyal readers are canceling because of it, we’ve got to admit that we’ve made that tradeoff and are choosing to wind down the print business one frustrated senior citizen at a time.
Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst's newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.