Afternoon Delights

Article excerpt

At its height, General Motors operations in Flint, Mich., employed more than 60,000 people spanning various early and late shifts. And it seemed like nearly all of them read The Flint Journal. The afternoon daily may seem like an anachronism today, but for most of those auto workers, the paper's p.m. publishing schedule was practically a necessity, locals say. When the Journal came out late in the day, thousands of auto workers either on their way in or out of the plant depended on the paper to get the latest news. "People became used to it," says Paul Keep, the newspaper's editor since 1999. "They could not conceive of a morning Flint Journal."

The story is similar in many other cities and towns in which afternoon and evening newspapers once flourished -- and where, in many cases, you may be surprised to learn they remain quite viable. For many, their pub time was originally tied to either a large manufacturing workforce that worked odd hours or to farmers who tended to get up and out to the barn before sunrise, leaving newspaper reading until later in the day.

"Afternoons worked," says John M. Jones, Jr., editor of The Greenville [Tenn.] Sun, which circulates in what was one of the leading cattle-ranching and dairy and tobacco farming areas in the nation years ago.

But in both Flint, where the GM labor pool is down to 16,000, and in Greenville, where tobacco and dairy farming have been cut back, mere tradition has not been enough to keep the afternoon readership strong. Leaders at both papers say they have had to rely on other market forces to retain the afternoon approach. In Flint, it was a growing commuter population that kept the p.m. edition going as many workers started spending as much as two hours commuting to work in the morning.

For Greenville, lost farming has been replaced with increased manufacturing among more than 70 companies in the area that still employ workers at off hours. Says editor Jones at the Sun, "We have done surveys, and they always indicate readers are more comfortable with the afternoons."

But while Flint and Greenville have kept the p.m. editions rolling, are enough people still reading an afternoon newspaper to offer them much of a future? From the look of recent statistics, you might not think so -- but you also might be mistaken.

Just Fine, Thank You

Between 1999 and 2004, the number of papers publishing after lunchtime plummeted from 760 to 653, while circulation among those dailies has dropped from 13.7 million to 9.3 million. Morning papers, meanwhile, have been glad to pick up the slack, growing from 736 to 813 during the same period, while their combined circulation has also increased, albeit mildly, from 47.1 million to 47.5 million. The a.m. growth occurred despite an overall newspaper circulation drop from 56.1 million in 1999 to 54.6 million today.

The real turn came in 2000 when the number of morning papers, then at 766, surpassed those in the afternoon, at 727, for the first time. And just this year, the afternoon club lost its last major market daily when The Detroit News switched to morning publication as part of its sale from Gannett Co. Inc. to MediaNews Group.

"I think you will see a continuation of fewer and fewer newspapers in the afternoon," predicts newspaper analyst John Morton of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Spring, Md. "Increasingly, a lot of them are converting to mornings to gain or hold readership."

But not everyone. In fact, most of the two dozen afternoon-newspaper editors and publishers who spoke with E&P say the p.m. edition is doing quite well, thank you. Although big-city dailies that once thrived on the evening sale through street hawkers have cut and run, numerous medium and small-sized market papers say the delayed publication offers them a special opportunity.

Even with the glut of 24-hour cable TV, news radio, and Internet information overkill flooding consumers with stories around the clock, afternoon papers have found and controlled their markets well, though many have shifted from late to early afternoon. …