Newspapers are tipping fast to a focus on Sundays as value of those subscribers increases

With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, I see unmistakable signs that the print side of the newspaper industry has passed a tipping point. Sunday is getting a growing share of editorial and business resources at the expense of weekday editions.

While the new-format Audit Bureau of Circulations results, posted earlier this month, do not permit meaningful comparisons to 2010 reports, newspapers keep their own circulation statistics. On that basis, many are reporting modest Sunday gains in 2011 after years of steep losses -- a trend highlighted in a news release and accompanying white paper that the Newspaper Association of America plans to release later today.

But the shift goes deeper than an uptick in circulation numbers. With limited resources, newspaper organizations are investing more in the most profitable edition of the week, tacitly letting the daily audience numbers and ad revenues continue to slide.

Put another way, a Sunday subscriber is now so much more valuable to advertisers than a daily reader, it makes simple business sense to recognize the disparity and act on it.

I ran that theory by John Murray, NAA's circulation expert, and in an e-mail reply, he emphatically agreed:

"Yes, a Sunday (subscription) is likely worth as much as the other 6 days combined and that realization is driving pricing and cross-platform subscription packaging decisions at newspapers as we speak."

Murray is referring to aggressive new programs to sell Sunday-only subscriptions and heightened attention to retaining existing subscribers. Also, The New York Times, Boston Globe and others implementing digital paywalls this year typically give Sunday-only subscribers, as well as seven-day subscribers, free or deeply discounted full access to their websites.

Looked at another way, the heavy digital user who agrees to begin paying for unlimited access can get the print Sunday paper thrown in as a freebie. That's why, as New York Times Co. executives explained in their latest earnings conference call, after signing on more than 300,000 digital subscribers, New York Times Sunday circulation went up rather than down.

Sunday has accounted for as much as half of many paper's advertising revenue for years.  But two trends are now further driving momentum Sunday's way:

  • Sunday is a "lean back" day when people have plenty of time to read longer stories, look at advertising and, in many cases, plan shopping by looking through and clipping the package of pre-printed inserts. On weekdays, by contrast, many busy working readers find a series of quick visits to the paper's website satisfies their needs.
  • A tough economy has drawn more consumers to use inserts and coupon discounts, and even launched a "super-couponing" craze of harvesting and combining multiple offers to get deeper savings. At the same time, despite the availability of electronic coupons online and the dawn of smart-phone shopping deals, newspaper inserts remain the dominant coupon platform.

Either of those drivers of inserts' popularity could fade within a few years. That would be a case in point for Gladwell's contention that many tipping-point epidemics stop as abruptly as they start.

There's no sign of that yet, however. So look for those fat Sunday editions to keep growing and skinny papers early in the week to be even more insubstantial.

Sunday success across the country

The planning for a Sunday push started at chains like Gannett and Scripps as long as 18 months to two years ago. In typical Gannett fashion, the company charged all departments at all 80 community newspapers with growing Sundays and is getting measurable results.

Gannett's largest community newspaper, the Arizona Republic, now has 1.25 million Sunday readers compared to 1.19 million in 2008, according to the NAA report, and finds an average reader spending 65 minutes with the publication.

Others claiming success in the NAA study include:

  • The Sacramento Bee, up 3 percent year-to-date in both Sunday subscriptions and single-copy sales.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, up 6.7 percent in the six-month period ended September 30.
  • Twelve E.W. Scripps papers, up 0.3 percent Sunday in home delivery and 5.4 percent in single copy.
  • The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, up 4 percent in June 2011 compared to a year earlier in single copy and 2.7 percent total Sunday paid in the most recent six-month period.
  • The Poynter-owned St. Petersburg Times, up 4.9 percent total Sunday circulation year-to-date and up 11 percent in single copy.
  • The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, up 2.7 percent Sunday and 0.8 percent daily, as well, for the most-recent six month period. (The paper has had a firm paywall for roughly a decade aimed at maintaining print circulation).

The papers report a variety of strategies to boost Sundays. For some, it is more local content, others more investigations, still others more stories and sections aimed at female readers. The St. Pete Times added 7,000 trial Sunday subscriptions through Groupon and Living Social offers (and is just now learning how many of those will convert to regular subscribers).

Some start-up offers, like The New York Times' successful marketing at 850 events I wrote about earlier this year, require those accepting to pay by credit card or EZ-Pay (automatic monthly payments that continue indefinitely). Gannett now sends monthly bills with reference to "payments being due" and no use of the word "renewal."

What Sunday growth means to other days of the week

All this is not to suggest smooth progress for Sunday editions as newspaper revenues crashed in the 2000s. Sundays were hit especially hard by the deep losses in classifieds, which typically had filled section after section at big metros in the 1990s.

My reading of NAA circulation figures suggest Sunday circulation was declining nearly as fast as daily through much of the decade.

So the rebound and Sunday-is-king strategies are relatively recent, just the last year or two.

This bright spot in an otherwise dismal financial year for the industry does carry a couple of disturbing implications.

  • On starvation rations, will daily papers earlier in the week continue to wither and eventually be eliminated as print products?
  • Is an end-game for the industry Sunday-only in print and the rest of the week as a digital product, probably on multiple platforms?

It could be, but my hunch is not yet and not for a while. The eight Booth Newspapers, now owned by Advance, announced earlier in the month that they were reincorporating as a digital business and that each would end home delivery at least three days a week.

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, the nation's biggest surviving joint operating arrangement, switched to three-day delivery. Gannett, which manages the business affairs of both papers, has reported that it has retained the vast majority of advertising and that readers have been accepting digital replica editions on non-delivery days.

The objection to stopping publication or home delivery on certain days remains as it ever was: If you tell customers they don't need a print paper every day, they may conclude they don't need it other weekdays as well or don't need it at all.

But I hear footsteps. Gannett exec Randy Lovely told NAA that after Sunday successes "editors are turning their attention to the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday editions."


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