Two-thirds of Michigan households will be unable to get daily newspaper delivery after the end of this month, notes Alan Mutter in his column in Editor & Publisher. Michigan is only the most dramatic example of a quiet yet dramatic change that is sweeping the U.S. newspaper industry as publishers make the most painful cut of all and trim distribution schedules.
The most visible manifestation of this trend is the experiment in Detroit in which the two major dailies, which operate as a partnership, cut home delivery to three days per week in early 2009. Mutter notes that the daily circulation of the Free Press and the Detroit News both fell by more than half between March, 2008 and March, 2011. Sunday circulation of the Free Press, which is the only game in town on that day, is down 21.6%.
Newspapers in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Jackson are set to scale back home delivery from seven days to three in February. The newspapers will still be published daily but will only be delivered to doorsteps on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. As in Detroit, publisher Advance Publications said the move is part of a shift to a “digital first” strategy. It’s also a cost-cutting measure, as evidenced by Erica Smith’s estimate of more than 360 layoffs.
Mutter notes that many other dailies have quietly cut back publication schedules. We heard the total was more than 100 two years ago, but no one tracks this trend to our knowledge. Reducing frequency is the last and most painful cutback to make, but few publishers have any choice as advertising revenues have dwindled by more than half over the last six years.
In the Michigan examples, publishers are still able to claim that there newspapers are “daily,” even though many fewer people read them. It’s notable that the economics of the industry now dictate that the biggest savings are gained from cutting back on delivery trucks and drivers rather than presses and paper. Trucker unions, whose bargaining power has been eviscerated by concessions over the last three years, have little leverage and can only hope to retain the dwindling number of jobs that are left.
We noted recently that forecasts that 1,400 daily newspapers could disappear over the next five years are perhaps not overstated. That doesn’t mean these titles will disappear from the earth but rather they won’t publish on a daily schedule. But does daily frequency even matter anymore? The daily newspaper as we know it was designed for an age when people consumed their news at the same time every day. Thanks to the profusion of computers in the workplace and smart phones in the pocket, people now access news whenever it’s convenient for them. The news organizations that survive will move to a “digital first” strategy with all deliberate speed. In that respect, the Michigan experiments may represent the leading edge of where the entire industry is going.
The most troubling aspect of the Detroit experiment is that circulation has fallen across the board, including the profitable Thursday and Sunday editions. This accelerates the death spiral in which circulation declines lead to cutbacks in editorial content, which spark further circulation declines. Newspapers that sacrifice their daily status are thus ever more pressed to move to profitable digital models.
Newspaper layoffs have created a lot of empty office space, so in Philadelphia they’ve come up with a novel experiment to put it to good use. Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News is hosting three media-related startups in space once occupied by staff journalists. The trade-off for the tech firms is that they must give Philadelphia Media an early look at what they’re building. The media company also hopes that staffers at the publishing company will learn a few things by rubbing shoulders with entrepreneurs who are focused on creating profitable businesses quickly. A similar experiment is underway at the Boston Globe.
It was only a matter of time before publishers started giving away e-readers in exchange for subscriptions. Barnes & Noble, which is struggling to compete in the tablet market against a newly aggressive Amazon, is giving away a free black & white Nook reader to people who buy a one-year subscription to The New York Times. Alternatively, subscribers can opt to buy a color Nook reader for $99, which is $150 below the retail price.
This entry was posted on Thursday, January 12th, 2012 at 10:40 am and is filed under Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.