Which came first, the chicken or the circulation?

April 30, 2013

There’s more thanpromotion to building circulation

By Peter W. Wagner
Publisher | The N’West Iowa REVIEW

We’ve all heard stories about early Midwest publishers trading subscriptions for produce, eggs or chickens. So which came first, circulation growth or improved content?

Many weekly and small market dailies are thriving while larger metro papers are struggling to stay in business. The difference in most situations is better local content.

In larger markets the overabundance of electronic media, radio, TV, websites and the explosion of social media, are reporting everything that happens, often as it happens, way ahead of the newspaper.

Even worse, the deluge of 24-hour TV news channels have reduced the importance of printed national and international reports, once a staple of the daily.

Only in the small communities and suburban markets do America’s newspapers still have anything close to an exclusive hold on local news coverage. Readers still want to know what is going on in their hometown. They want the entire story including all those important five W’s taught in journalism school—who, what, where, when and why.

Newspaper readers have become much more sophisticated the last few decades. They expect their newspaper to be inclusive, educational, entertaining, a community cheerleader and a quick read. Every issue is expected to include comprehensive reporting on the city council, county supervisors and school board, the most recent high school game, who died, who got arrested, what business is coming to town (or closing) and a fun read about someone, someplace or some local group.

Plus, the paper better also be full of local advertising because surveys show as many subscribers buy a newspaper for the ads as for the news.




The problem with many community papers is simple: They’re boring, they print too many overwritten stories, they’re loosely designed, they have no recognizable personality and worst of all their management doesn’t really care about the wants, needs and desires of the paper’s readers.

Ask a local resident why he doesn’t buy your community newspaper and you’ll probably be surprised by his answer. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed will tell you that reading the paper “is too time-consuming.” Eight percent will say the paper is biased and opinionated. Six percent will say there’s nothing interesting in the paper and 5 percent will say the type is too small and it is “just dang hard to read.”

There are two great truths to building circulation. The first is you can’t sell subscriptions into areas that don’t shop your community. The second is you won’t sell subscriptions to a paper that doesn’t print material demanding a passionate reaction. That’s why solid opinion pages are still important to a community newspaper.

And also remember, your hometown newspaper is the first recorder of local history. Names, dates and re-posts of local events are the most important part of every page your print. Readers want and expect those check passing photos, lists of school and organization award winners and biographies of new club officers. That’s the kind of information they can’t and won’t get from radio and TV stations.

Pew Research looked at what readers wanted a few years ago and made interesting suggestions. One was to replace the cumbersome broadsheet page with a smaller, more easy to use tabloid format. The other was to only include short, easy-to-read overviews in the paper and the lengthy details on your website. The idea was to drive readers to your website for the less interesting facts, leaving more space in the paper for additional stories. But then we have to consider that free detailed reporting on a website is what is reportedly destroying some metro publications.



We all know shorter is better. We eat fast, work fast and play fast. None of us have the time for much of anything anymore, especially to read a newspaper. But wait, not every story has to be short. Added interest and value can easily be obtained through the use of checklists, sidebars, quote boxes, information tables, comparative rankings, maps and dozens of other second and third points of entry.

Just because a writer spends two or three hours at a meeting doesn’t mean you have to run a 32-inch story to report nothing happened.

Present your editorial material with large, effective, photos. Print them in process color whenever possible. Ninety percent of all newspaper readers enter the page through the accompanying photos, artwork, graphic illustrations or a creative headline.

The larger and demanding the photo the more likely the subscriber is to read the story. The average reader looks at only 75 percent of the photos in a newspaper and checks out only 56 percent of the headlines. And if those statistics discourage you, here is one more: the same subscriber usually reads only 25 percent of less than half of all the stories in your paper.

It is your job, through strong local reporting and quality design, to make that paper interesting and impossible to live without.

So if the goal is to gain more subscribers and to sell more newspapers, the first steps are easy:

• Produce stories that truly interest the reader.

• Include stories that are the first drafts of local history. You are, after all, the newspaper of record for your community.

• Make your publication more visibly interesting.

Create a newspaper that is personable, dedicated to providing all the important local news and information and “full of heart.”

Only then will you be ready to mail out those new subscriber offers or begin that unbeatable circulation promotion drive. © Peter Wagner 2013


Peter W. Wagner is publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW, Sheldon, IA, and president of Creative House Print Media Consultants. He is a regular presenter at newspaper conferences and conventions as well as a new revenue consultant and trainer for independent newspapers and groups. He can be reached at pww@iowainformation.com or on his cell—712-348-3550.

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