Memo to newspaper publishers: Don’t ‘diss’ your print subscribers.

nindA few weeks ago, the Boston Globe stubbed its toe in major fashion when it changed the company it uses to deliver ~115,000 hard-copy versions of the daily paper in the Boston metro area.

And the problems continue to persist even now.

No doubt, the decision to switch home delivery services was made out of a desire to save money rather than to improve service.  And one can understand why management might have been looking for ways to cut production costs on the print version compared to the “go-go” online/digital realm.

But focusing on solely millennials and other younger customers can come back to “bite you on the bottom line” – which is exactly what happened in the case of the Globe.

Evidently, the new delivery service was untested – at least in terms of taking on a client with volumes as large as Boston’s leading newspaper.

As it turned out, tens of thousands of papers weren’t delivered, sparking a cataclysm of loud, negative feedback.

The pique of customers went well-beyond failing to receive something that had been paid for. In the case of the Globe’s extensive Baby Boomer subscriber base, missing home delivery struck at the heart of the time-honored rituals of how they receive and consume their news.

Consider this: The average subscriber to the Boston Globe pays around $700 per year for their home-delivery subscription.

That’s more than $80 million per year in income for the paper – before factoring in advertising revenue.

Of course, the costs of producing and delivering the print product exceeds that of digital. But this subscription base is more loyal than digital news consumers precisely because they value how the news is presented to them.

Let’s not forget that for people born before 1965, most are emotionally attached to print far more than those in other demographic groups. As Gordon Plutsky, a director of applied intelligence at IDG, writes about the Boston Globe snafu:

“[It’s] not just the physical paper, but the ritual of getting the paper off their driveway or front steps and starting their day spreading out the broadsheet and scanning the news. They missed curling up with coffee or tea and working the crossword puzzle or cutting coupons.  It is easy to forget that until the mid-‘90s, this was the only way to read the news and, for Boomers, it is how they learned to read and interact with the world.  Their brains are wired for print in the same way Gen Z is wired for mobile.”

Perhaps the Globe’s business and administrative staffers lost sight of that fact. Maybe they treated their “unsexy” print subscribers as an afterthought while forgetting that this segment of their customer base is critical to the very survival of their paper – and the industry – in a period of transition.

True, delivering the news to print customers is more expensive than doing so digitally. But these customers are more predictable and loyal, versus fickle and finicky.

… But only if the product is delivered. Fail in that fundamental function, and the gig is up.

nosThe Boston Globe’s print readers are hardly unique. Recently, Pew Research Center surveyed consumers in three urban markets.  Despite the differences in these markets (geographic, economic, social), a highly significant percentage of respondents in all three metro areas reported that they read only the print version of their local newspaper:

  • Denver, CO: ~46% read only the print version of their local newspaper
  • Macon, GA: ~48% read print only
  • Sioux City, IA-NE-SD: ~53% read print only

This isn’t to suggest that Boomer audiences are a bunch of rubes who aren’t connected to the digital world. Far from it:  They tend to be better educated and more wealthy (with more disposable income) than other demographic segments.  Their attachment to print isn’t in lieu of digital, but more in concert with their online habits.

Unlike other generations, they’re not single-channel as much as omni-channel consumers. The keys to newspaper publishers’ continued relevance are bound up in how they serve this older but critically important segment of their customer base.

Speaking personally, I can “take it or leave it” when it comes to print.  I don’t subscribe to a daily print paper, and the bulk of my news comes to me from digital sources.  But there’s something quite comfortable about sitting down with a quality daily paper and reading the news stories therein — including long-form journalism pieces that are difficult to find very many places these days.

There are millions more people across the country that are happy to continue paying for the privilege of consuming the news in just such a fashion.  Indeed, they’re the newspaper industry’s most loyal readers.

The Latest NYT Financials are Atrocious

The latest quarterly financials have just been released by the New York Times Company … and the figures are worse than even the more pessimistic observers had forecast. Not only did the company lose nearly $75 million in the first quarter, it is also laboring under a $1.3 billion debt load. Rival newspaper The New York Post was quick to report that the Times’ cash position, net of upcoming debt maturities, is a mere $34 million.

The looming cash crunch is causing some analysts to speculate that the venerable Gray Lady is slouching towards insolvency.

Not surprisingly, the biggest cause of the financial tailspin is plummeting ad revenues. Declines in classified advertising led the pack (down ~45% compared to the same quarter last year). National advertising fell ~22% and retail advertising declined ~25%.

What’s even more startling was the weak performance of Internet advertising. Instead of growing as had been the case up to now, those revenues actually posted a decline of ~6%. This result blows a huge hole in the notion that online advertising will take up the slack in print advertising.

What’s become abundantly clear is that newspapers have yet to adjust to a world in which they no longer have a near-monopoly on the news in a city or a region. The fact is, for years newspapers were able to bankroll large editorial and administrative staffs precisely because there were few if any other ways for local or regional advertisers to reach their audience. So they were able to charge a pretty penny for advertising space and get away with it. A lucky few cities had two competing newspapers, but many have had single-paper monopolies for years. TV and radio advertising represented alternate promo options, of course, but not in the same medium.

[For those who think that the New York Times, by virtue of its reputation as one of the United States’ leading newspapers, is less a local/regional paper than a national one, they are correct — up to a point. National print advertising represents only around 45% of the paper’s advertising revenues.]

The simple fact is that people today have far more choices online for local, regional and national news – practically all of them free. At the same time, the advertisers have more options than ever before in choosing where to advertise.

So what’s next for the New York Times Company? More staff layoffs? Unpaid furloughs? Halting pension plan contributions? Perhaps all of these … plus trying to sell off other assets like the Boston Globe or the Boston Red Sox franchise.

The all-too-likely outcome: None of this will make much difference.