How to keep reading habits when cutting print newspaper days

This week departing New York Times CEO Mark Thompson made headlines when he said he believes there will not be a print newspaper within the next 20 years. It’s not the first time that this type of comment has been made, and it won’t be the last time.

Still it is undeniable that we are headed to a limited print future, if not entirely print-less. In the US alone, more than 100 newspapers reduced publishing frequency enough to change from a daily newspaper classification to a weekly classification, between 2004 to 2018. Interestingly in our research in the print to digital switch we have found mainly examples in the Anglosphere, we are curious to hear from others in other countries on how they’re handling the reduction of print days.

Due to the Coronavirus crisis, we have seen an acceleration of this trend with titles across the globe temporarily cutting print — although we cautioned at the beginning of the crisis, that it would be unlikely for publishers to truly bring back print days they had cut. So how can we reconcile the growing focus on habit formation and the need to reduce the daily print product?

For publishers with this question in mind, we have three guiding principles as you embark on this journey of cutting print while maintaining (and even growing) reader habits.

Pivot to a habit-first strategy

In an eerily prescient article last summer, media analyst Ken Doctor examined this trend of newspapers cutting print, which he believed would be soon accelerated by a “transformation event” (could he be one of the only people to predict the global pandemic?). This article questioned if publishers can convince their readers that they can live without the print newspaper one day a week, will readers soon decide they can actually live without it every day?

That’s why publishers should not view this change as one of becoming digital-first, but instead habit-first. With this as the North Star, publishers will become focused on maintaining the reading habit of their print readers and developing a digital reading habit for a new audience.

One of the common questions we receive in our habit formation work is from non-daily publishers about how they can apply the principles of habit forming news products. Our research shows that a reading habit is formed when there is reading activity on three days in a week. It is important to keep in mind that the goal isn’t to create a daily reading habit, as perhaps this doesn’t even exist in print anymore. When The Greeley Tribune in the US reduced their print publishing days last year, one of the key deciders was their audience data that showed there was no daily reading habit among subscribers even in print.

Invest in your bridge products

In order to not lose subscribers when cutting print, it is key to invest in the products that will help bridge print readers to digital. A standout bridge product is the digital replica of the newspaper; it’s called a variety of different things from ePaper to digital edition but in its essence, it is a digital experience that is very print-like.

One newspaper that has gone all-in on their replica edition is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the US. Publisher Walter Hussman has said he is prepared to spend $12 million on iPads for subscribers so they can read the replica edition instead of the print paper. The replica aspect is a key part of this shift, as expecting print readers to go digital by using the newspaper’s website means readers have to adapt to both a new reading format as well as a new way of accessing it. Print readers are much more likely to be what we call edition readers so trying to convert them to newsflow readers in the form of a constantly updating website is adding another challenge.

[Other newspapers have] asked people to change their reading habits from reading a newspaper to reading a website. We’re letting subscribers read the exact same format they’re familiar with. I think that’s one of the keys to why it’s successful.

Walter Hussman, Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

In a recent podcast for Editor and Publisher, Walter Hussman expanded on this concept, by referring to the research of Iris Chyi. He likened the newsflow concept to ‘ramen noodles‘ as it is perceived as a cheap, inferior product. To be successful in making the change from print to digital, publishers need to ensure they are offering a high-quality digital product for readers in an edition format.

It is important to have a strong product offering, one that is clear for users and offers a clean and straightforward reading experience. Typically publishers that cut print lower their subscription offer a little bit, but not significantly, typically aiming to still keep 70 – 90% of their seven-day circulation revenue. For subscribers to still feel they are getting value out of the subscription, they need to have a quality digital product experience.

Subscribers need to see the value of the digital component of their subscription if they’re going to continue to pay after they lose print days.

Ken Herts, director of operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

Additionally, the replica edition is not the only potential bridge product. On our platform for example we have NextGen editions which have a more digital-first look and feel. We’ll be exploring this further in our next webinar on September 1st, make sure to register today to save your spot.

This can also mean creating new products to address the daily needs of previous print readers. For example, after hearing complaints about missing the obituaries on non-print days, The Greeley Tribune created a daily obit newsletter which quickly surpassed 1,000 subscribers with a 50% open rate (the highest newsletter open rate at the newspaper). It’s not the first time we’ve seen obituary specific products getting developed, in Germany Nordwest Zeitung saw 15% of all their audio requests on smart speakers being for obituaries.

Become ruthlessly focused on readers

The decision on which print days to keep usually comes down to keeping the Sunday or weekend edition as this is where the majority of advertising revenue still comes from. But it’s important to note that switching to a digital-focused strategy does require a business model change as well. Relying on digital advertising revenue will not work so the successful publishers will be the ones that become ‘ruthlessly focused on readers‘ as the Chief Innovation Officer for ARA in Spain Ferri Tordera recently said.

This is also what The New York Times credits for the recent announcement that their digital revenue has surpassed print revenue for the first time.

We’ve proven that it’s possible to create a virtuous circle, in which wholehearted investment in high-quality journalism drives deep audience engagement, which in turn drives revenue growth and further investment capacity.

Mark Thompson, CEO at The New York Times

Gone are the days of volume over value. Instead of trying to get the most eyeballs in front of content in order to earn more ad revenue, successful publishers today are deeply engaging with readers to understand how their journalism can better serve the community. In Belgium, Mediahuis has taken this to an extreme by even visiting readers directly in their homes to see how they are building news into their daily routines.

Readers demonstrating against cutting print days, 2012

That’s not to say that readers always know what they truly want. When The New Orleans Times-Picayune switched to a three day a week printing schedule in 2012, readers took to the street demanding a print newspaper every day. They later went back to a daily printing schedule, before ultimately being sold to a competitor.

This story isn’t shared to scare publishers, as close to a decade later readers are more accustomed to digital. However it is meant as a cautionary tale for newspaper readers, the ultimate goal is to find a sustainable business model for our newspapers so that they can survive for many years to come. More access to news, in whatever form that might take, is ultimately better for us all.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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