February 12, 2024

Since the end of the pandemic, newspapers have struggled to find enough carriers to throw print editions onto driveways. Pay increases and signing bonuses haven’t really worked. Now a new solution is taking root at smaller papers that is likely to spread up to larger ones:

Abandon carrier delivery and turn the job over to the U.S. Postal Service.

Since 2022, Gannett has transitioned more than 70 markets from carrier delivery to the USPS, spokesperson Lark-Marie Anton told me by email, with more on the way through 2024.

The trend is cascading through mid-sized groups and non-chain papers as well. The Ontario (Oregon) Argus Observer, part of Wick Communications’ 14 daily newspaper holdings, told readers on Jan. 31 that delivery will be exclusively through the mail. The family-owned Sumter (South Carolina) Item announced the same Feb. 3. At both, the change was paired with a reduced frequency of print to two days a week.

The break with tradition has irked many readers who have the habit of a leisurely Sunday paper read. Now the weekend edition will come in Saturday’s mail. That means news content will close by midday Friday. Should there be a mail delivery glitch, you won’t get your Sunday paper until Monday.

The new arrangement saves money while putting the remaining carrier force out of a job. But savings are not the only rationale. “There is real cost-benefit,” Imtiaz Patel, chief consumer officer at Gannett, told me. The change has even been seen as an improvement by some readers. “We reached the point where it was impossible to get reliable delivery. Now it is consistent and on time.”

“Deadlines are earlier,” Patel said, “but it gives our staff more time to think about how to make the weekend edition an enhanced product.”

Nor do the newspapers have much of a choice. Delivery has long been a low-paying, usually part-time job that requires working in the middle of the night. With a strong labor market, it’s easy to find better opportunities.

For Patel, a veteran executive and consultant, the delivery shift is one more instance of newspapers needing to break with we’ve-always-done-it-that-way thinking. “When I was at The Wall Street Journal, it was a big decision to reformat and take out most of the stock tables,” he said. That turned out to be a non-event for readers, who had already moved on to the digital realm for that content.

John D’Orlando, Wick’s chief operating officer, said that the transition has gone smoothly, and Ontario is actually the last of Wick’s dailies to make the change. “We want to create, not necessarily just investigations, but more robust stories,” he said. “And this helps.” As for frequency, “if you have three eight-page papers and convert them to two 12-page papers, it is little difference and may be a plus for readers and advertisers.”

The reduced frequency trend, pioneered by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and my hometown Tampa Bay Times (owned by Poynter), has spread more slowly than I had expected. McClatchy papers and many others now do not publish print on Saturdays, but a broad shift to just one or two days of the week has not yet happened.

As for timeliness of content, the industry’s trend of outsourcing printing, often to a plant more than 100 miles away, has already knocked out late afternoon and evening sports results from the paper. Readers looking for those scores need to check a digital site.

Executives won’t say so, but these shifts, together with yearly subscription rates soaring to the $500 to $1,200 range, appear to be a strategy to run off remaining print readers — or at least give them a strong push to paid digital alternatives. The choices usually include an e-edition that replicates the newspaper layout of a daily report.

I spoke with Holly Lubart, vice president for government affairs at the News Media Alliance, and Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers. Both said postal relations are climbing near the top of their issues agendas.

There is some nervousness over the deals among publishers since the Postal Service continues to struggle financially. “Same-day delivery is not guaranteed, and they have their own shortages of manpower,” Lubart said, Plus, Congressional pressure “for system reform and cost containment” is constant.

Both also said that they have tried without success to get a good estimate of how many of the nation’s roughly 1,200 daily newspapers have made the switch. Nor is there any standard percentage of savings since the Postal Service handles pricing and logistics details market-by-market rather than centrally.

Gannett’s Anton said that for now, mail delivery is for the smaller among the chain’s 200-plus papers, not contemplated for metros like The Arizona Republic or The (Nashville) Tennessean. Wick’s D’Orlando said he had decades of experience at metros and agreed mail would not be a good fit.

However, big-city titles have a very similar circulation pain point, with a declining carrier force and worse household penetration, making routes much more spread out and expensive to serve.

Reassurances aside, with financial prospects for 2024 looking bleak, I think even metros will probably be thinking about the mail option by the end of the year.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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