Barring a miraculous turnaround in the economy, a sea change in the thinking of media buyers, or a late-breaking proclivity for print in the sub-geezer population, publishers in ever more communities are likely to reduce the number of days they provide home delivery — or print a newspaper altogether.
Nowhere else is the demise of daily delivery more dramatic than in Michigan, where more than two-thirds of households will be unable get seven-day service after the end of January.
The rationing began with a bang in 2009, when the two Detroit dailies, the Free Press and the News, stunned the industry by cutting home delivery to just Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. Although the Motown metros continue to print every day of the week, anyone wanting a paper on non-delivery days has to fetch one at a retail location.
Unsurprisingly, the Monday-through- Friday circulation of both Detroit papers plunged between March 2008 and March 2011, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The daily circulation of the Free Press in the period fell 54.7 percent to 168,985, and daily sales of the News tumbled 51.7 percent to 90,914. Even though Sunday home delivery continued without interruption, the circulation of the Freep (the only title publishing on that day) is down 21.6 percent at 475,543. The Freep, which is owned by Gannett, and the News, which is owned by MediaNews Group, are partners in a joint operating agreement.
The daily drought is scheduled to widen to other Michigan communities in February, when the Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, Muskegon Chronicle, and Jackson Citizen Patriot reduce home delivery to Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from their current seven-day schedules. Just as in Detroit, single copies of each newspaper — all of which are owned by Advance Newspapers — will be available to consumers who take the trouble to track them down. In cutting back home delivery, Advance emphasized the intention to attract more traffic to its statewide digital portal, MLive.com.
While determined readers for the time being can still buy a daily paper in Detroit and Grand Rapids, there has been no such option since mid-2009 in Ann Arbor. That’s where Advance replaced its seven-day Ann Arbor News with an “online digital media company” called AnnArbor.com, which puts out print editions just Thursday and Sunday. Since the change, daily circulation for the print product has slid by 30.8 percent to 30,422, according to ABC.
If Michigan is ground zero for the un-dailying of newspapers, it is far from alone. Journal Register Co. knocked two days off the seven-day print cycle of some of its titles in Upstate New York. Media General cut the publication of its smaller seven-day papers in North Carolina to three days a week. GateHouse Media did the same in Kansas.
Anecdotally, we know there are many more cases across the country. We just don’t know how many. Although you would think that ABC, the industry-supported group that audits circulation, and the Newspaper Association of America, the industry’s principal trade group, would want to keep an accurate count of something as important as the dwindling number of daily newspapers, they profess not to know.
There is no doubt, however, why publishers are throttling their once-prized print products:
A relentless decline in newspaper advertising sales has halved industry revenues since a record $49.4 billion was collected in 2005. Although final ad figures remain to be calculated for 2011, projections based on year-to-date performance suggest that sales last year probably didn’t top $24 billion. This has been catastrophic for publishers historically accustomed to hefty, double-digital bottom lines.
In five-plus years of ever more vigorous retrenchment to salvage some degree of profitability, publishers have trimmed staff, crimped newsholes, and outsourced everything from call centers and accounting to production and delivery. With scant behind-the-scenes economies left, publishers now are being forced to make the most conspicuous cut of all: reducing the number of days they publish or deliver papers.
The good news, given the increasing shift of consumers to digital media consumption, is that de-emphasizing print necessarily forces publishers to focus on their Web, mobile, and social efforts. The bad news is that most of them to date have not made impressive strides.
On average, the industry reaps less than 14 percent of its ad revenues from digital media, according to the NAA. That’s not nearly enough to keep publishing companies healthy if print revenues continue shrinking, as they seem likely to do in the immediate future.
Publishers cutting daily delivery realize the strategy works only if they can build their digital divisions faster than their print businesses shrink. While publishers know this is risky business, the smart ones know there is no Plan B.
Alan D. Mutter is a former editor, who became a Silicon valley CEO and now works as a consultant to media companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).