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How to effectively transition from print to digital: API report

newspaper and laptop on desk

Over the last decade or so, many newspapers have slowly reduced print publishing. Between 2004 and 2018, at least 104 US newspapers reduced publishing frequency enough to change from “daily” status (publishing three or more times a week) to “weekly” status (printing two or fewer times a week), according to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

The decision to scale back on print is often driven by the need to cut costs for immediate financial survival. A better approach is to make planned, proactive decisions about downscaling print that enable a long-term digital future, suggests a recent report from the American Press Institute. 

Everybody is clear that at some point in the future, seven-day dailies will simply not be economical. We are clearly moving toward a world of mostly weekly plus digital. There’s an inevitability to it, and the question for the newspaper industry is whether it faces this in an organized strategic way or does it do this out of desperation.

Ken Doctor, Media Industry Analyst and Author of “Newsonomics”

The report, “Cutting print: Making it work when publishing days must go,” presents strategies and insights for newspapers to survive and thrive through the reduction of print frequency and transition to digital.

Here are the highlights:

Preparing readers for the digital experience

“Reducing publishing days is not an end in itself. It’s part of your path to sustaining your newsroom in a digital future,” says Ken Herts, Director of Operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

While reducing print days can save money, it is not enough to ensure a publisher’s survival. That requires a carefully planned and well-executed strategy driven by a deep understanding of readers. 

Herts says that it should ideally be a strategy that is executed over years to prepare readers for the ‘less paper, more digital’ experience. He also suggests newspapers build a digital business before they slash print. 

If you haven’t built a digital business before that, then you’ve got no money for your newsroom. If the goal is to preserve a news business then as people shift away from print, just shifting away from print is shifting out of business.

Ken Herts, Director of Operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

Advertisers also need to be bought on board to preserve ad revenue. While many advertisers may shift from one day to another after a cut in publication frequency, there might be losses from those that were paying for all seven days.

Sometimes timing could be a problem. For example, a publisher can lose revenue if an advertiser wants to place an ad on a specific day because of a special occasion (like Memorial Day sale), when the paper does not print. 

“Meet our readers where they are”

The Greeley Tribune, which serves a market north of Denver reduced from seven print days to four at the beginning of this year. According to its publisher Bryce Jacobson, the decision was driven by audience data. Jacobson says, they learned that “there is no seven-day habit, so we should try to meet our readers where they are.”

The strategy unfolded over two years which saw a business reorganization and publication change. Jacobson is using the savings from print reduction and reorganization to bulk up his newsroom and marketing team.

He explains, “I just moved my dollars from being spent on print product to the marketing department. All of my peers seem to use it as an expensive savings. I didn’t give that to my owners, and they’re okay with that.

“The reorganization was more important to me than putting that money to the bottom line because we’ve got to figure out how to do business differently if we’re to succeed in this industry.”

“The consumer will let you know”

A major decision when reducing print publication frequency is selecting which days of the week to cut. According to Penelope Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, “Historically, the two least profitable days have been Monday and Saturday.” 

We started really simply: we have a stable of papers and advertisers, and we suspect most are buying one or two times a week. Let’s look at the data and see what that implies for how often we should be publishing. The advertisers are probably already telling us what we should support.

Brooke Warner, former General Manager, The Sierra Nevada Media Group

While eliminating the days with least advertising seems an obvious choice, unique local factors also need to be taken into account. These include covering local sports or government meetings that happen on specific days. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is one of the biggest newspapers, according to the report, that recently reduced publishing frequency. It went from seven days to five, stopping print publishing on Tuesdays and Saturdays. 

Allan Block, Chairman of Block Communications, which owns the paper, says that he would “love to have killed Monday.” He did not do so because the Pittsburgh Steelers play on Sundays and that needs to be covered in print on Mondays.

Terry Egger, the publisher of Philadelphia Inquirer cautions publishers from rushing into slashing print days. “The key is the consumer will let you know when they’re done with the print product. Don’t prematurely yank it from them. We need to continue to price the print product up until we hit a threshold where the consumer says no.”

He added that publishers “have to be clear on the profitability of every day of the week” of their print publications. “If you see you are getting “upside down” on certain days, you’re not getting nourishment anymore, and that’s the consumer telling you.”

“Rates also deliver a value perception”

Pricing is a critical issue. Publishers must decide whether to maintain or change subscription rates. There will be readers who object to paying the same subscription rates for fewer print editions. Several publishers interviewed for the report left prices unchanged despite expecting subscriber complaints.

The Sierra Nevada Media Group was one of them. The publishing frequency of the paper had dropped from six days a week to two. It launched a multi-pronged strategy to improve subscriptions at the Nevada Appeal. 

The strategy included

  • Communicating to the readers that they were getting the same amount of news in print, which was also available online. 
  • Reminding them about the other things of value they got from the subscription. For example coupons which could help them save upto two to three times of the subscription cost.
  • Emphasizing the value of the newspaper continuing to exist.
  • Improving the user experience for subscribers.
  • Providing more automatic billing options.
  • Simplifying pricing with an all-access monthly rate of $14.99 that covers print delivery, online and apps

What’s notable is that before the change, the full retail monthly rate of the paper was $12.34. However, it had been pushed down to the average rate of $4 per month, per subscriber, due to discount programs.

Warner said, “New subscribers haven’t balked at the new rate. We think rates also deliver a value perception. When we kept dropping the rates on the spot to get people to sign up — which can sound like begging — our re-sign rates actually went down. It sounded like we didn’t value our product.”

“You can’t overdo it.”

Most publishers interviewed emphasized the necessity of communicating well with readers and advertisers when eliminating print days. 

Warner says, “There’re a lot of people out in the community who are willing to talk negatively about changes, especially on social media. The thing that you can count on is that people do talk. So you always have to get in front of it. Help them understand why the changes are happening. You can’t let them frame it for you and you can’t do it after the fact.”

This can be done through articles, columns and ads, holding meetings with community and business leaders, and one-on-one chats with subscribers. But it’s never enough. Most publishers say even after regular and multi-level communication, they still received calls from readers when they did not get their print edition.

The advice I give other publishers is — do a countdown on the front page, count down from 30 and have something every single day not just in house ads, but in articles and columns. You can’t overdo it.

Jay Seaton, Publisher of The Daily Sentinel in Colorado

“One less day to feed the beast”

Looking ahead, cutting down on print alone will not ensure a sustainable future for publishers. It should be accompanied by investment in better digital experiences for readers.

The report states that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital success. However, its foundation is built on a better understanding of the audience and a deeper use of analytics.

Scaling back on print is not just about losing something, it also offers opportunities to build new products and technologies. The State Journal in Kentucky started transitioning readers from print to digital before stopping its Monday print edition.

After the change, focus on web and email has grown. The newsroom delivers email newsletters and electronic versions of the puzzles, comics and entertainment pages on Mondays.

Steve Stewart, Publisher of The State Journal in Kentucky says, “Our enterprise reporting has gotten a little better with one less day to feed the beast that is a print edition. 

“We can direct that mental energy into our digital future — figuring out what kind of content is going to drive up a value proposition for a prospective digital subscriber.”

The full report is available at American Press Institute:
Cutting print: Making it work when publishing days must go

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