Magazine article Editor & Publisher

What's the Frequency?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

What's the Frequency?

Article excerpt

Around this time last year, executives at the Detroit Media Partnership decided some extreme measures were in order. The economic downturn had been particularly tough on the Motor City, and on the whole, joint operating agreements (JOAs) have not exactly panned out as the industry and the government envisioned. Several papers in big JOA cities -- including Tucson, Denver, and now Seattle -- are in danger of closing, if they haven't already.

David Hunke, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership -- which oversees the JOA between the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, published by MediaNews Group -- knew his company was in trouble: It was painfully evident in February 2008 that the newspapers wouldn't come close to meeting their advertising goals. "We were faced with doing the same old across-the-board cuts on every part of the operation," he says.

The press and distribution functions were already running like well-oiled, efficient machines. If the partnership wanted to reduce costs further, the burden would fall on the newsrooms. But slashing expenses that way wasn't going to help the papers.

So Hunke booked himself a trip to Europe.

While visiting Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, he found there were other ways of meeting the partnership's economic challenges. By June, Hunke formally approached Gannett, which controls 95% of the Detroit JOA, with an alternative, radical plan: Discontinue home delivery of both papers, four days a week. "There was a sense we had to do something drastic," he says.

Some smaller papers had already jumped on similar experiments: The East Valley Tribune outside of Phoenix; Wisconsin papers like The Capital Times in Madison and the Daily Telegram in Superior; the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Ore., which dropped its Monday edition; the Kansas City Kansan (now online-only); and the nationally distributed Christian Science Monitor. But Detroit represents one of the first big metros to stop bringing papers to readers' doorsteps on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

It's a big gamble. When asked if the partnership could close one of the papers, Hunke says no. That said, are the Motown dailies an exception, or just in the vanguard to take this path? Are other metro newspapers -- all faced with a serious plunge in advertising revenue -- thinking of dropping days or home delivery too? And if so, what are the risks involved?

Shoot the whole day down"It's not something we are considering here," says Dan Schaub, senior vice president of audience development and membership services at the Sacramento Bee.

While he acknowledges that every market is different, they're not ready to give up on days or home delivery in Sacramento -- the home base of parent company McClatchy, which is dealing with a burdensome debt load. "Our position is to increase frequency with our readers across all channels across the business," Schaub says. "Our role is to go to market and tout why they need a Monday paper, why they need a Tuesday paper." He adds that all of the Bee's products, from online to the daily to the niche pubs, are important: "We shouldn't short-sell ourselves."

Tribune Co.'s Baltimore Sun also plans to keep intact its frequency and delivery days. Gary Olszewski, the Sun's director of circulation marketing, says his preferred method is to offer customers a variety of delivery packages: The Sun is letting readers make the choice. "From a marketing perspective, you really can't go wrong if the customer is making decisions on what days of the week they want," he adds. "If someone picks a package that is better suited for them, they are going to stay longer as a reader."

One metro's executive who requested his name not be published says there are other ways to prune out a day or two of circulation. Papers across the country have started doing this in force over the last several years by reducing Newspapers-in-Education, hotel, employee and third-party sponsored copies. …

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