July 9, 2012

Another Alabama newspaper has decided to reduce its days in print. This time, it is a smaller daily that has been praised for its commitment to community journalism. Starting in the fourth quarter of this year, probably in October, The Anniston Star will eliminate its Monday print edition, editor Bob Davis said by phone Monday evening.

The family-owned newspaper is not immune to the economic pressures felt by news organizations across the U.S. Those business imperatives “know no difference between a family-owned paper and a large corporate newspaper,” Davis said.

“The Monday newspaper is our lowest-circulation newspaper,” Robert Jackson, Consolidated Publishing Company’s vice president for sales, told the Star’s Cameron Steele. “If you look at circulation numbers and look at advertising revenue, it is the lowest product.”

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Star’s average circulation for the six months ending in March was 20,249 on Sunday and 19,068 the rest of the week. That’s down from a year earlier, when it was 21,502 on Sunday and 20,405 the other days.

In the summer of 2009, Davis came to the Poynter McCormick Big Ideas Conference to describe the paper’s efforts to revamp the Monday paper. His project, as described by seminar leader Jill Geisler:

In Alabama, The Anniston Star’s move to a Monday tab was an adventure. After six months of planning and focus groups, the paper launched “JumpStart,” a Monday tab with community features, “news you can use” and personality profiles. Readers rejected the tab format. The paper quickly reverted to broadsheet, but retained the lively content. This presentation was one of the most memorable of the conference because it provided leadership lessons in innovation, “failing fast” and moving forward.

About six years ago, Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers and his family started a foundation that, in partnership with the paper and the University of Alabama, would help train journalists the way the paper had once trained Rick Bragg and others.

At the time, Ayers told NPR’s David Folkenflik:

We want a great newspaper, and we want the school to really add something to our craft. And we want to make enough money to make that happen. And that’s what drives us, that’s what we want. And we’re not gonna say you gotta bump the 20 percent profit up to 35 next year.

Interns from that program will continue to work at the paper during the summer, but other things will change.

Davis said the paper will not lay off staff, but it is making three other changes to “better focus our resources and manpower.” The Star will:

  • Eliminate the Monday print product.
  • Discontinue the Friday entertainment section (“Escapes”) in August and “bulk up” a renamed Sunday features section.
  • Discontinue its contract with the Associated Press, which requires two years’ notice. The Star notified the AP last month but hopes to continue with the service in a reduced form, at a reduced cost.

The paper is also considering a paywall and other digital shifts. Though more and more metro newspapers are embracing digital subscriptions, it’s less common among papers of the Star’s size.

The paper currently publishes to its website “at or around midnight seven days a week, barring a technology breakdown.” Breaking news is updated throughout the day, according to its “About Us” page, but readers are warned:

“Before acting on information you have found in The Anniston Star Online, you should confirm any facts that are important to your decision. The facts may have changed since the site was updated.”

“We’re all looking at our models on what goes online and what’s the model to pay for that journalism,” Davis said. “We know that content we provide, we can’t do it for cheap. It’s expensive to do this kind of journalism. It has value and it’s pretty exclusive to us.”

For example, he said, “no one else is covering the Anniston City Council in print or any other real form … no one’s covering local sports.”

What precipitated this change, Davis said, is what’s precipitating it everywhere: “the changing economy, a digitizing world and declining readership in print, simultaneous with a tremendous demand for the journalism our newspaper does.”

“It’s a period of transition; we’re all going through it.”

Earlier this year, the Frederick News-Post in Maryland resumed Monday print publication, after stopping it in 2009. Publisher Geordie Wilson said at the time that readers “have made it abundantly clear that they want the print edition of their local paper on their doorstep seven days a week.” The family-owned paper changed its approach to advertising on Mondays and “the first month is almost sold out.”

In May, Advance Publications announced plans to cut staff and shift from daily printing to three days a week at its Alabama papers: The Birmingham News, the Press-Register in Mobile and The Huntsville Times. The company is also reducing staff and print days at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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