Is Saturday the New Sunday for Newspapers?

July 30, 2009
Category: Uncategorized
Spacer Spacer

There was a time in America when Sundays were so different from Saturdays that it made sense, I guess, to hold back those big enterprise stories — and all those ads — until the weekend was half over.

But those differences have evaporated along with Blue Laws and the fading recollection of families swapping Sports for Comics for department store ads around the coffee table on Sunday afternoons. 

A host of lifestyle and economic realities suggest it may be time to abandon the traditional Sunday monster in favor of a weekend edition delivered on Saturday that might eliminate a home-delivered Sunday paper.

It’s a high-stakes issue, with Sunday newspapers the most successful revenue driver of an industry struggling to hang onto whatever cash it can. Surveys show Sunday readership running about 10 percent higher than readership during the week, with advertising getting most of the credit for that popularity.

Some early experiments with shifting the bulk of news, features and advertising to Saturday are suggesting ways papers can avoid losing revenue at the same time they deliver better results for readers and advertisers.

“This is the kind of idea being discussed over a beer as opposed to putting pencil to paper on proposals,” said John Murray, vice president for audience metrics and circulation marketing for the Newspaper Association of America.

“There’s a big list of pros and cons,” he told me in a telephone interview Thursday, “but in this economic environment, the pros are a lot easier to identify than they were five years ago.”

Back then, he said, newspaper executives “would never have leaned toward slaying their most successful day.”

Today, he said, the idea of migrating that day from Sunday to Saturday holds the potential for cost savings as well as new revenue.

Factors supporting the shift include:

  • Pressure to cut the costs of newsprint, delivery and staffing on days not delivering a big return of advertising revenue
  • Pressure to publish the news as soon as it’s ready, as opposed to holding stories finished on Friday for publication on Sunday
  • The chance to create a longer shelf-life for news as well as advertising throughout the entire weekend
  • The possibility to develop new Saturday delivery services, especially if the U.S. Postal Service eliminates Saturday mail service

Maurice Jones, publisher of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, said he and his staff are trying to understand what it would take to give Saturday papers the attributes of Sunday papers. 

“We’ve been doing some homework,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday night. “We started by trying to see what people are doing to lift their audience on Saturday, and we started coming across folks doing various things to make Saturday their new Sunday, as you put it — such as delivering coupons and inserts in advance, on Saturdays, or having combined Saturday/Sunday papers.”

Frequency of publication has become a hot topic for newspapers. One of the most watched cases is the move by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News to halt home delivery on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday.

Mario Garcia, who helps newspapers around the world devise their publishing strategies as well as the look and feel of their publications and Web sites, says: “There is no secret to the fact that less frequency of publication is in the cards for a lot of U.S. papers.”

In an e-mail exchange this week, he predicted the eventual “creation of a robust, story-filled weekend print edition, but no publication Monday through Friday (where online will take over).”

In a special report published last month, Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher reported that the AP had compiled a list of 100 publications in 32 states that have dropped at least one print day per week in the past year.

Among them are The Register-Star and the Daily Mail, two small (combined circulation of 10,000) papers in northern New York owned by Johnson Newspaper Corp. When Publisher Roger F. Coleman, who oversees both papers, was faced with the need to trim expenses earlier this year, he recalled confronting similar issues 20 years ago as publisher of a small paper in suburban Chicago.

Addressing the daunting prospect back then of competing with the Sunday Chicago Tribune, he opted for a Tuesday-Saturday publishing schedule.

It worked then, he said in a telephone interview this week, and it’s working now.

“We’ve had no loss of advertising or circulation revenue,” he said. “We’ve raised the cover price from $1.50 to $1.75 on Saturdays and sales have kept up — if anything, they’ve grown a bit.”

He said killing Sunday and Monday editions of the Register-Star and Daily Mail have trimmed “seven to eight percent” from the papers’ overall expenses. The papers were profitable before and after the changes, according to Coleman.

Those savings have come mostly from reduced newsprint and delivery costs. Register-Star executive editor Theresa E. Hyland says the papers reduced weekend staffing from two editors working each day to one editor charged with updating the Web sites of both papers each day. She said there have been no layoffs associated with the move.

She said the papers have packed comics, puzzles and other features that previously appeared Sunday and Monday into Saturday and Tuesday papers.

Weekend traffic to the papers’ Web sites has increased, Hyland said, but the papers are still reverse publishing Sunday and Monday Web-only articles into the Tuesday paper, often with updates.

Shifting enterprise reporting to Saturday, she said, “gives readers more time to spend with the paper” throughout the weekend.

Garcia, who created the visual journalism curriculum at Poynter and has continued his association with the Institute, envisions a weekend edition as “the good read that you look forward to enjoying in the garden, by the fireplace, the beach, totally relaxed, in a leisure environment.”

He added: “The fact that we equate reading online to ‘work,’ and reading in print ‘leisure,’ says a lot about the direction in which the frequency of publication issue will go.”

Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, says his paper took a step in the direction of a weekend edition two years ago when it created a special Saturday edition, only available at newsstands, with the promise of Saturday’s news and Sunday’s features in big type atop Page One.

The Times Union, which has some circulation in the Hudson-Catskill region of the Register-Star and Daily Mail, charges $1.50 for the Saturday paper available on newsstands, compared with 75 cents for the Monday-Friday paper and $2 for the paper that goes on sale Sunday mornings.

Smith says he has “a hard time thinking about not publishing a paper any day of the week,” but says he could imagine transforming the Saturday paper into the main weekend edition with Sunday being redesigned as a smaller edition serving as a calendar and preview of the week ahead.

He said he’s been attracted to the idea of a Saturday weekend edition during travels in Canada, where the practice is common.

“Some people would really like the idea of getting the advertising earlier because they’d be able to plan their shopping,” he said. “And from a reading standpoint, Saturday is a great day.”

Advertising is the critical consideration, though, and the Saturday-as-the-new-Sunday trend will likely rise or fall depending on what such outfits as Target and Best Buy believe is in their best interest. I’ll seek their perspectives in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, what’s your preference? Would you like your main weekend newspaper delivered on Saturday or Sunday? (Some friends have already kicked off the discussion on my Facebook page. If we’re not yet friends there, just invite me and I’ll reciprocate.)