The Post's Changes, in Business News and Beyond

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By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 29, 2009

In a column earlier this month, I urged Post readers to "buckle up" for a wild ride as the newspaper makes major changes. The road will get bumpy on Monday.

The daily Business section is being folded into the A section. Daily stock listings will be trimmed. Six comics and several games will move online. The television schedule will be reduced.

This past week, Post editors have done a good job of signaling Monday's changes through a series of "To Our Readers" notes. But they haven't done as well explaining why, and that's what many readers told me they want to know.

Questions about the changes dominated the roughly 900 e-mails, calls and letters to the ombudsman last week. The common theme: "Why are you doing this to my newspaper?"

I spent several days talking with editors and executives about their rationale for these painful decisions and concluded they're grounded in solid research.

At the core of Monday's changes is the need to trim expenses. Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham told shareholders this week that the newspaper's 2009 losses will be "substantial."

One way to cut costs is by reducing staff, and The Post on Thursday announced its fourth round of buyouts since 2003.

Another is to trim the physical size of the paper. The savings can be substantial.

A single page of newsprint in the daily Post, with its 650,000 circulation, costs roughly $2,500. A single page on Sundays, with its 870,000 circulation, costs about $3,500.

Shaving two pages from each daily and Sunday paper can save close to $2 million a year.

Stock listings were an easy target. They typically consume several pages daily. But most investors now get stock updates online. And the dwindling number who look at stocks in the newspaper are usually checking only a handful among the hundreds listed.

Eliminating stock listings from Business would leave only a four-page section of news. Editors explored options to give it the heft to justify a continued stand-alone section -- combining it with daily classified ads, for instance -- but each involved production problems or other drawbacks. The editors decided to make it part of the A section, which has solid readership and appeals to advertisers. It's a natural fit, because many business and economics stories already run in the A section.

Reducing the number of comics and games was a simple matter of gauging reader preferences. The Post uses an outside firm to regularly question more than 3,000 adults in the Washington area and also conducts its own surveys. To evaluate the comics and games, adults were asked which ones they read, and adults with children were asked which ones their kids read.

Those scoring at the bottom with both adults and kids got the ax.

Next, television listings. The Post has provided daily program schedules for more than 90 channels from 5 p.m. past midnight. But editors suspected many had comparatively little viewership. They looked at local ratings by Nielsen Media Research, which tracks television viewing habits, and lopped off those with small audiences.

Readers have a personal, emotional engagement with their newspaper. Each decision to cut content -- first the Sunday Source, then Book World, now stocks and comics -- can be justified in isolation. But editors worry about the tipping point at which readers conclude it's no longer "my Post" and not worth the money.

The changes Monday will include a variety of fresh content. There will be a new daily page of local business news. The Sunday Business section, still a stand-alone, will gain more personal finance stories and enhanced weekly stock price data. Comics being eliminated from the newspaper will remain online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/comics.

I predict a flurry of complaints but not a flood of cancellations.

When The Post trimmed some comics and stock listings in 2007, only 50 readers complained in canceling their subscriptions.

Only 43 readers cited the elimination of Book World earlier this year in ending their subscriptions -- less than 1 percent of all cancellations.

There are more changes coming for the newspaper. A major redesign is in the works. Post readers should keep their seatbelts fastened. And Post editors can provide a smoother ride by explaining not just what, but why.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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