The latest to go to three days a week: The storied New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of America’s oldest papers, which announced Thursday that it plans to limit its print schedule — beginning this fall — to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions. It will maintain 24/7 online reporting via its site, Nola.com.
This is a tactical trend for New York-based Advance Publications, which owns the Times-Picayune, as it pushes toward a limited print-digital model. Advance said Thursday that in addition to the Times-Picayune, it will also cut back the print frequency of its three papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., to three days.
Even as print declines in the digital age, it’s still the economic oxygen of newspapers. Print ads account for more than 86 percent of the $24 billion that the industry collected last year, according to the Newspaper Association of America, and the nation’s 1,400 or so daily newspapers have about 45 million paying customers who get their news the old-fashioned, carbon-based way.
Yet print revenues are falling so rapidly that the industry is roughly half the size it was as recently as 2007. And producing a printed paper also carries significant costs, including expensive presses, warehouses full of newsprint, fleets of delivery trucks and a manufacturing process that hasn’t changed significantly in decades.
Thus, the industry’s existential problem: How to cross the chasm that separates the declining (but relatively high revenue) print business to the lower-cost (but far lower revenue) digital news business?
Advance Publications, which is owned by the billionaire Newhouse family, has been the most aggressive in the industry in answering that question.
In 2009, the company cut its Ann Arbor (Mich.) News to two print editions weekly. In February, it moved seven more of its dailies in Michigan to a three-times-per-week print schedule.
The privately held company closely guards its financial results, but executives say they’re encouraged by what they’ve seen so far: The cutback on print has driven more readers and advertisers to the papers’ Web sites.
“It’s better to be too aggressive than not aggressive enough at a time like this,” said Randy Siegel, president of local digital strategy for Advance Publications. “Doing nothing is not an option. Preserving the status quo is not an option. . . . You either get out in front, or you get left behind.”
Although that strategy may be “inevitable” for newspapers, analyst Ken Doctor said, it’s not without risk or downside.
“For longtime print readers, this is going to be really jarring” because many readers don’t use the paper’s Web site on a regular basis, Doctor said. “This is a publisher pulling the plug on the seven-day habit. It’s a huge unknown how many readers will stick around.”
That could affect advertisers, as well, although the paper will continue to come out on the three most valuable days for print ads. The Sunday edition is typically the week’s most lucrative, as readers have more time to spend with the paper. Wednesday has traditionally been a “market” day, in which supermarket chains run ads featuring price specials. And Fridays are a magnet for restaurants and entertainment venues seeking the business of readers planning their weekends.
“Maybe you can create a new profitable model this way,” Doctor said, “but it’s a big maybe.”
Caroline Little, chief executive of the Newspaper Association of America, said such experimentation is necessary if newspapers are to survive. “I care about print deeply,” said Little, former publisher of Washingtonpost.com, “but I also care that 30 or 50 years from now that there will be a way to support good journalism.”
One thing is clear in New Orleans: There will be fewer journalists once the Times-Picayune implements its changes. The paper said it would make unspecified cuts.
Doctor, however, estimated that the paper’s newsroom will lose about 50 journalists, leaving about 100 to cover a region of 1.2 million people. “Chilling,” he said.
The Times-Picayune, founded in 1837, has published daily through wars, depressions and the occasional catastrophic hurricane. Its greatest glory might have been its brave performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm knocked out the paper’s presses, but its journalists continued to report online in sweltering and dangerous conditions for three days, providing vital information to a traumatized and news-hungry region. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for that work.
he Times-Picayune’s fortunes have tumbled since Hurricane Katrina. Its daily circulation was 133,557 as of March, off 49 percent from March 2005, a few months before the storm. It sells 155,000 copies on Sundays.