Community papers find interesting ways to build circulation
May 6, 2014
By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
irculation among community papers has seen its ups and downs. In an informal survey of Pub Aux readers, there is a fairly even split between those that have seen their circulation either remain steady as compared to 10 years ago, 34.2 percent or increased by more than 5 percent, 10.5 percent, and those that have seen 5 percent decline, 44.7 percent.
The decline has come from several different areas, with the top two—general economic decline and an aging population, tying at 44.9 percent. Other factors include:
• 29% Competition from a company’s own Internet or digital products.
• 23.2% Declining civic engagement
• 14.5% Competition from other Internet or digital products.
• 13% Specific economic challenges in their communities.
• 4.3% Declining literacy.
But not all circulation losses were for these various reasons. Many publishers cited poor postal delivery service as a major reason for falling subscriptions.
One wrote: “Increasing time and more erratic delivery by USPS to out of county subscribers,” as the reason. Another wrote: “Crappy postal service in out of county areas.” For one publisher, the delivery was so slow he wrote: “Postal Service has slowed delivery to the point many (readers) are refusing to renew. We no longer publish a newspaper, we publish a history book.” And one publisher has seen a “sharp decline in (circulation during) the past 12 months with changes in the Postal Service.”
Not sitting around and fretting about circulation declines is why some papers have seen an increase. Of those who answered the survey, 22.8 percent cited aggressive marketing as the reason for their circulation increases. An equal number cited improved news coverage as the reason, 22.8 percent.
Other factors include:
• 14% Improved newspaper design.
• 10.5% Better distribution mechanisms.
• 7% Community growth.
• 5.3% Stronger economy in our area.
One publisher noted that his circulation increased because of, “A symbiosis between online readers and print, with online readers adding print subscriptions to better meet their local news habits and needs.”
Just how do community newspapers market themselves to readers to build circulation? Of those who answered the survey, the majority 60.5 percent promote from their own website. Respondents were allowed to pick more than one answer, so the next largest subscriber draw came from having booths at local events, such as county fairs or craft shows, 34.2 percent
Other methods included:
• 27.6% Direct mail.
• 19.7% In-house telemarketing.
• 14.5% Partnering with local groups to sell door-to-door.
• 15.8% Novelties and premium products offered.
• 11.8% Incentives for carriers to sell subscriptions.
• 7.9% Using a telemarketing vendor.
Some publishers noted other various ways they reach potential or past readers: Kiosk sales at local retail stores, promotions through newspapers, saturation mailings, house ads, inserts in rack papers, expanding retail outlets and promoting the single-copy sales plus promoting the subscriptions in the papers, in-paper ads, using Facebook, the website, partnerships with metro media, etc., to get free publicity wherever possible as the premiere source of news in the county, use a saturation free paper for specials to subscribe and use sampling, an antique truck used as a moving billboard, in store vendor promotions, flyers, sampling, targeting, renewal bill stuffers and special offers, Facebook, and Twitter, Instagram promoting.
When dealing with a local group selling subscriptions, there is always the question of how much of the sale does a paper give to the group. Of those who do partner with local groups, 12.5 percent use a flat rate system, 4.2 percent offer 6 percent to 10 percent of the sale, and 2.1 percent offer 3 percent to 5 percent of the sale.
Newspapers have been able to reduce postage costs by using postal software. When asked what type of circulation software they use, of those that responded, all but 8.6 percent use such software. And the majority of them are happy with their current software, 82.4 percent.
All the respondents said their papers were distributed through the mail, 100 percent, but that is not their only means of distribution.
• 86.7% Use news racks.
• 65.3% Use store sales.
• 44% Say people come in to pick up the paper.
• 32% Use home delivery.
• 18% Use bulk sales.
Most newspapers send out renewal notices before subscriptions expire. Of those who answered the question on how they send renewals notices, the majority, 68 percent said they mail them as First Class Mail.
• 24% Mailed at Standard rate.
• 18.7% Website or e-mail notice and payment.
• 14.76% Automatic renewal by credit card.
• 8% Send it in the home-delivered paper.
• 5% Send it as an insert in the mailed paper.
In the last five years there has been little change in the way the respondents have distributed their papers. Five percent have gone from carrier delivery to the mail, and 3.3 percent have moved from the mail to carrier delivery.
When asked if they would partner with a nearby daily for delivery or use a private company, the majority, 78.3 percent, said they would contract with a private company. And the majority of those, 77.3 percent would only do that for in-county delivery.