Circulation steady at community papers: Reduce Churn

May 1, 2015

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers' Auxiliary 

Newspapers gaining circulation and those with shrinking circulation are split about even at 44.1 percent and 45.2 percent, respectively.

The National Newspaper Association conducted an informal survey of its members in March. The good news was that of those who answered the survey, almost 11 percent have shown an increase in circulation.

One respondent said the increase in his area was from the paper appealing to new residents by promoting school activities.

Another respondent said that initiating a metered paywall has contributed to his paper’s subscription growth. And subscription promotions by e-mail to those who have registered at the paper’s website has helped, too.

According to Eric Meyer with the Marion County Record in Marion, KS, the Hillsboro (KS) Star-Journal and the Peabody (KS) Gazette-Bulletin, his papers had seen a circulation decline but turned it around when they adopted an aggressive policy toward news.

“We de-emphasized commoditized coverage of officials, meetings, events and releases in favor of enterprise coverage, focusing on human drama or oddities—more real people doing real things and a lot less coverage of institutions,” he wrote in the survey.

About a quarter of the towns where these newspapers circulate are showing an increase in population, 20.6 percent. The majority, 58.8 percent are staying steady, while 19.1 percent have seen a population decline. Much of the change can be attributed to how close the newspaper is to industrial areas or larger communities and whether there are resorts or retirement areas nearby.

Many of the survey respondents have kept up revenue by increasing their single-copy prices. A third of them, 35.1 percent, charge $1, while 31.9 percent charge 75 cents. About 15 percent charge 50 cents and 2.1 percent charge $2 for each copy. One publication charges $5. Some charge more for their Sunday papers. Free distribution papers were also involved in the survey.

Some newspaper owners might worry that increasing the singe-copy price of the paper would drive down sales. But that is not always the case. By a majority of 3-1, those who answered the survey said they saw little or no change. Fifteen percent saw a drop in sales, but then they rebounded. Another 18 percent saw a drop, but it did not rebound. About 2 percent saw an increase in sales.

One respondent said that when he increased the paper’s price from 50 cents to 75 cents, sales dropped sharply. After talking with the owner of an amusement business, who had experienced a decline because of a similar price increase, the publisher was encouraged to increase the paper’s price again this time to $1.

“Doubling the price in one month seemed silly, but I did it. Sales went back to normal and no one complained,” said Jake Benson with the Proctor (MN) Journal. Not having to make change for the news vending machines was the reason for the turnaround.

Connie Knapp with The Daily Journal in Fergus Falls, MN, said she actually tried to lower her paper’s price to 25 cents in a test market. She sold no more copies then when it was 75 cents during a 12-week period.

For one publisher, doubling the cover price from $1 to $2 caused a 10 percent decline in single-copy sales, but subscriptions increased by 10 percent, and net circulation revenue went up 33 percent.

One respondent said his readers thought the extra 25 cents was worth it.

“We just did this within the last month—going from 50 cents to 75 cents,” said Teresa Tooley with the Central Oregonian in Prineville, OR. “We are experiencing a 38 percent increase on returns ….”

Raising one’s price is not the only way to increase revenue. Newspapers have to constantly fight circulation churn. On average, about 5 percent of the people in a community will move. Add to that the intense competition for people’s attention from other media, and one can see newspapers have their work cut out for them when it comes to building and maintaining their subscriber base.

NNA members were asked what they do to help build circulation. Of those who answered the survey, the majority, 67.2 percent, sample non-subscribers. Others, 45.3 percent, negotiate for the best possible placement of their newspaper racks in retail stores. Some also use direct mail—39.1 percent, and some also use telemarketing—23.4 percent. Respondents could pick more than one answer. To build single-copy sales, some of the respondents have increased the number of news racks in their area. A few have even used electronic signs to promote subscription growth.

Some of the other ways they build circulation:

• Run half-price subscription sales during the year.

• Offer rewards through retention programs.

• Have a presence at community events.

• Improved content for readers.

• Added a PDF version to the paper’s website.

• In-paper promotions and giveaways.

• Provide short-term complimentary subscriptions to community leaders.

• Complimentary subscriptions as door prizes at local events.

• Encourage staff to give away three-month subscriptions.

• Use lots of house ads.

• Run an extra section for subscribers only.

• Promote subscriptions in social media.

• Use rack cards in news vending machines and retail stores.

• Offer a digital version of the printed paper.

• Use door crews.

• Start new interactive features, such as polls and contests.

• Offer free classified ads for subscribers only.

The old saying that to make money you have to spend money is true with circulation, as well. But because it’s expensive, not all newspapers have the budget to run circulation campaigns. Even so, a few spend as much as 30 percent of their total budget to increase subscriptions. But the majority spends 3 percent or less. About one-third did not know how much they spent because the item was not in their budgets.

To build circulation, nearly 60 percent of those who answered the survey sample non-subscribers. Timing is important. They sample anywhere from once, twice, four and six times a year. Others do it monthly, and some sample small areas with each issue—anywhere from 25 to 200 non-subscribers.

There are a myriad of offers newspapers use to get non-subscribers to sign up to receive the newspaper. Some papers offer a percentage off the regular annual price, some offer gift certificates, and others have buy-one-month-get-one-month-free offers.

At the Custer County Chief in Broken Bow, NE, Deb McCaslin offers 13 months for 12.

“But our largest circulation promotion comes in November when we offer campfire mugs—they have become collector’s items. We offer the mugs to non-subscribers and as a thank you to our subscribers. I think it is important to thank the people you have—your loyal base.”

Digital publications or online versions of the printed paper are becoming popular, especially for newspapers that have subscribers who live out of their usual circulation area.

Of those who answered the survey, 83.9 percent said they do offer access to their paper online. Of those who answered yes to the question, 76 percent said the online version was included in the subscription price. The others have an up-charge for access to their digital versions, except for those free-distribution papers.

Newspapers also offer online-only subscriptions for about what they charge for their print product. Seventy-one percent of those who answered the survey said they do offer digital-only subscriptions.

And because advertisers want to know how many people are reading the paper, the majority of publishers, 58.4 percent, have been including their online subscriptions in their total reader counts.

When newspapers first started having an online presence, most or all of what they put on their websites was available at no cost to consumers. In this most recent survey, the majority of the respondents, 29.7 percent, said their circulations declined because of this. Seventeen percent said they saw an increase, but nearly 19 percent said that they do not offer their newspapers online.

Benson said that when his paper went online, all the readers liked it. “Although snowbirds enjoyed instant access to the news, they also did not want to give up their print copy, even though it arrived a week late.”

Kris Bastian with the Brillion (WI) News said, “People far away love that they can stay close to home. Most local readers want to physically hold the paper to read it and cut out articles and photos. We are the history of their families and communities. Our stories and photos will be placed in scrapbooks for generations to come.”

The circulation declines had newspapers rethinking putting everything online for free.

“Why give something away one place when people have to pay for it in another? Plus, we were losing subscriptions with free online. Now we are holding our own or adding a few,” said Gale Kass with the Frazee-Vergas (MN) Forum.

Some said they went to a paid, metered model so they could count those readers as subscribers. Others said they wanted to place a value on the paper’s content.

Michael Lewis with the Lynden (WA) Tribune put his reason simply: “Because we cannot afford to give away our news for free.”

Of those who have paywalls, the amount of information they charge for varies—from as little as 5 percent all the way to 100 percent. Almost all keep their commerce items, such as online classified ads, available for free.

Some people get upset when what they once got for free is behind a paywall. But publishers said they have to keep their operations financially viable to continue covering the news in their communities.

Julie Boren with the Jersey County Journal in Jerseyville, IL, said, “Most people seem to understand that our product is valuable, and they don’t object to paying for it. We receive very few complaints.”

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