Post revamping Sunday paper to boost hope for profit

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Every few years, The Post takes another stab at slowing the erosion of Sunday circulation. But the latest attempt, quietly gaining steam in recent months, has assumed special urgency. Whether it succeeds will have a major impact on Post efforts to return to profitability. And for readers, that will affect the quality and ambitions of Post journalism.

The Post's Sunday circulation, which once topped 1.1 million, has steadily declined by more than 350,000 over nearly two decades. Lower circulation affects the bottom line. But to really appreciate the implications, consider this: Sunday can account for about half of a newspaper's total revenue. The Sunday stakes are huge.

The slide was less worrisome when The Post was profitable. But when it tumbled into the red as the economy tanked, a problem became an outsize predicament.

To cut costs, money-losing Sunday sections such as Book World and the Sunday Source were jettisoned. TV Week was limited to subscribers who asked to receive it; then they were charged extra for it.

Late-night game results and breaking stories no longer make it into some Sunday papers. That's because The Post closed one of its two printing plants to save money, requiring earlier deadlines to print all papers at a single facility.

And the price of the Sunday Post was increased, from $1.50 to $2 at newsstands and from $1.50 to $1.85 for home delivery. Many readers properly complain they are paying more for less, although few appreciate that the price had essentially remained flat since the early 1990s.

The signs of accelerated Sunday erosion have been clear in recent years. An internal Post report in early 2009 showed print readership declines were deeper on Sunday than weekdays. It noted an "alarming" drop within a critical market segment with high trust in the media but increasing reliance on the Internet for news.

A newspaper-wide committee has been searching for solutions. What's being contemplated should be good for readers.

The first tangible step was taken several weeks ago with newsroom leadership changes to beef up the Sunday product. Kevin Sullivan, a Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, was named Sunday editor with broad authority over that day's news and features sections. He starts today.

"We want to make some changes in the paper, and we'll do that sooner rather than later," Sullivan told me. He declined to specify what's in the works, but there are clues.

Expect Sunday to include more stories that break news. Increasingly, major stories that used to be featured on Sunday have been shifted to weekdays, when online readership is higher. That's left many Sunday-only readers feeling cheated. Sullivan said Sunday must "showcase" stories that are "newsy."

Also, Sullivan said, the "emphasis on Sunday will be as local as we can make it, because we know that's who's reading the paper."

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