Against the tide

Scores of papers have eliminated their Monday or Saturday editions; a hardy few have gone further and cut themselves back to publishing just three or four days a week. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans is the latest high-profile example of a daily paper downsizing itself to a some-daily paper.

Meanwhile, here in Frederick at The Frederick News-Post, we’re heading in the opposite direction: We brought our Monday edition back from the grave in February.

Are we nuts?

Only time will tell. But five months into this experiment the results are promising. Readers are grateful, and advertisers remain supportive.

Going into the project, we had five main goals:

  • Increase reader satisfaction: The lack of a Monday edition was a huge and continuing source of complaints from our readers. Whatever the media gurus say about the inevitability of a future where dailies aren’t daily, our readers haven’t read the memo. They made it very clear they want their local paper delivered every day. We had seen about a 15 percent decline in subscribers after cutting out Monday in 2009; our hope was to at least stem the decline.
  • Seize the opportunity to rethink the daily newspaper: As it had shrunk over recent years, our newsroom had lost much of its design expertise. We wanted to use the reinvention of a Monday paper as an opportunity to talk about design and improve our overall graphical sensibility. We also thought long and hard about the kinds of information readers need to start their week, and we developed a range of new story forms to present that information.
  • Shore up our business and sports coverage: The lack of a Monday edition is a real liability in the football and NASCAR seasons. We also saw the start of the workweek as an opportunity to burnish our local business report.
  • Change the narrative: The Frederick News-Post had been through almost four years of cutbacks and layoffs, mirroring the national decline, and the perception of the paper in the community and even in the building was that it was struggling. We saw an opportunity to make a bold statement about promise and opportunity, one that would affirm subscribers, advertisers and employees in their continued support.
  • Make money: Suspending Monday’s paper saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in the short term. But it contributed to an erosion in our subscriber base, it cut the profitability of our third-party delivery business and it made raising home-delivery rates problematic.

I laid before the newsroom the following proposal: Design an entirely new Monday edition, with a business and sports focus and an emphasis on “agenda-setting” news for the week ahead. Make it a tabloid format, as opposed to the full broadsheet format we use the rest of the week, but keep the feel of a daily newspaper, with as much of the daily furniture (comics, editorials, letter, classifieds, advice columns, etc.) as we can. Here’s what emerged:

Along the way, we stumbled onto a new strategy for ad sales, which has emerged as the key to the business success we’ve had. I’d like to say we designed it intentionally, but really it was the result of a cascade of other decisions:

  • First, the tabloid format. We chose a tabloid format to underscore the newness of the paper, to force new thinking on design and information and also, I confess, to trick the eye. It was hard to imagine a Monday ad stack that would justify more than about 20 pages broadsheet, which we thought would underwhelm our readers. But a 40-page or even a 36-page tabloid feels richer.
  • Next, fixed ad sizes and positions. We decided to fix ad sizes and positions to simplify production, to make it easier for readers to navigate this new and unfamiliar paper and to give advertisers certainty over where their ads would show up.
  • Finally, the columns. We wanted a five-column design to give the Monday edition a newsy feel. But this left us with ad sizes that wouldn’t translate to other days of the week.

Given ads that couldn’t readily be extended to or from other days of the week, we made lemonade. We decided to sell Monday-only contracts on specific ad spots for 13, 26 or 52 weeks. This fundamentally changed the sale dynamics. It introduced scarcity and urgency, and it helped us minimize switch advertising.

The upshot so far: We’ve had tremendous success on the first four goals. Reader response has been overwhelmingly positive, even to the radically new format, and even from long-term (older) readers. The paper looks great, the new elements have been well-received and we’ve maintained a strong focus on business and sports. It’s hard to gauge how much the narrative of decline has been changed to one of growth or at least stability, but to the extent that advertiser support is an indicator we appear to have made gains.

On the final and critical goal of making money, it’s still too early to say, although most indications are that bringing back Monday has helped. Ad sales have far exceeded expectations, and we’ve held on to the early advertisers. In our most recent edition, for example, we have just one house ad in the 20 spots we designed into the paper.

On the other hand, single-copy sales of the Monday paper have been lower than we had hoped and our trend with subscribers has been somewhat mixed. Our stops have been flat, but our starts have been weak. Because we¬† increased rates shortly after introducing the Monday edition, though, it’s hard to tease out the impact of Monday. On balance, I’d say it has helped us to retain subscribers, but that’s a hunch.

All in all, we’re pleased. Bringing back Monday appears to be helping us financially, readers are happier and it has strengthened our position in the marketplace after several difficult years.

That’s not to say it would make sense for other papers. We had some unusual factors that helped to make it feasible for us. We have a substantial commercial printing business, with two other dailies on the press on Sunday nights, so we already had the press crews here. We also deliver a number of dailies in our market; bringing our Monday back actually helped reduce some complications there (and service complaints). And we had shifted some Monday content to an extra Sunday section, so we already were using about a third of the newsprint we run for Monday.

So it may not work for everyone. If there are takeaways for other papers, they might include the following:

  • If you need to reduce costs, consider a tabloid format. You don’t save on distribution, but you can save newsprint and it forces you to rethink what you’re delivering. Our readers love it.
  • The ad sales model — fixed positions sold on contract — has been surprisingly effective; we’re trying to figure out other ways we can employ it.
  • And the editorial kicker: Don’t underestimate the value of the daily readership habit. Three years after we suspended Monday, it was by far our largest reader complaint and a consistent obstacle in sales.

Some readings:

 

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