Free Papers Have Similar Experiences

Nov 21, 2014 at 03:47 pm by staff

Wow! Today has been one of those days. You’re in the business. You know what I’m talking about.

I planned to start on this column four hours ago, but the phone started ringing. Karen, who emailed late last night, needed my help to get an ad to print correctly in her paper. How could I not take care of that first thing? Zack, the IT director for a group of papers, wants to know when I can set up a remote access system for all the papers in his group. Jim called from another state to get my advice about a publisher’s job he’s been offered. Ed Henninger, who never refuses to help when I call, called to get some technical advice.

You know the drill. We work in a deadline-driven business. We get it done. No matter how busy we are or what is already on our plates, we get it done.

I heard from a university professor this morning who had promised to help with a project I was working on. He was several weeks late, so I wrote to ask him how his part was going. He apologized and explained that he hadn’t had time to keep his promise because he had to prepare for a talk next week. Next week. Geesh.

I’ve thought about that as I’ve looked over the results of my recent survey of North American publishers. These publishers are people who get things done. It’s no wonder that most of the newspapers in North American plan to have a bright future. We’re used to making the impossible happen every day.

Today, I’m looking more closely at the surveys completed by free paper publishers. With a few more completed surveys arriving just before the deadline, the number of surveys from free paper publishers added up to 102.

I’m also reading over the comments from a few folks who have been helping me assess the results. Tim Bingaman, CEO at Circulation Verification Council, wrote that he found the results “fascinating.”

Bingaman wrote, “From the comments I read, I am encouraged that so many are focusing on content, customer service and connecting with their communities and advertisers. I certainly agree that there should be a ban on ‘print is dying’ stories from all sides. Baffling why they would write those things about themselves. My first boss once told me that, ‘The appearance of momentum is often better than momentum itself.’ In the early days I certainly think that message helped CVC survive. I also believe it’s what the print industry needs today.”

Dick Colvin, Executive Director of Midwest Free Community Papers, seems to agree with Tim when he made a created a list of “Overall best strategies,” after looking over the results of the survey. Number one on his list: “Continue to fight the ‘Print is dead’ mantra. It is not even sick!”

Dr. Walter Fain, psychologist, is used to studying statistics in his work. He wrote a detailed synopsis of his thoughts concerning the survey. Speaking of newspapers in general, not just free papers, Dr. Fain wrote, “Newspapers bread and butter used to be to put out a paper of interest to people for a subscription fee and by selling advertising. The printed paper is still their bread a butter.”

There were thousands of responses to “open ended” essay questions in the survey results. Colvin obviously took time to read through these as he noted several observations related to both free and paid papers. He mentioned some areas mentioned by paid paper publishers that could be of benefit to free papers as well: These include:

- Transitioning to more niche products for print. Sell aggressively higher quality/magazine and niche products to compensate for losses in R.O.P.

- Offering multiple platforms for advertisers.

- Building frequency to increase results

- Using Print and digital to complement each other, but target exclusively distinct market segments

- Emphasizing advertising that can bring potentially big results to the advertiser. “Don’t utilize signature pages and similar strategies that help us, but not them,” Colvin wrote.

Colvin ended by writing, “Hyperlocal, hyperlocal, hyperlocal. Print the stuff mommies and daddies will cut out and hang on the fridge. Write stories about folks’ neighbors and friends. That is what they want.”

Bingaman also noted that there was a marked difference in the percentage of free and paid papers who reported they had increased their hyperlocal coverage. He noted that this might be because free papers have always focused more on hyperlocal: “I think the lower score on free may show that they have always done that. It’s interesting that free publications exceed paid publications in almost all the other improvements they have made to remain viable.”

Dr. Fain noted that newspapers might not be alone in some of their challenges: “Some newspaper folks are weary of having to continually improve the product with fewer people. They are tired of advertisers wanting more and better ads for less and less money. This is a challenge for newspapers, but today I find those same issues in many industries and services, including schools, hospitals, government, manufacturing, retail, service and others.”

Everyone involved in this study notes the optimism prevalent among newspaper publishers, from both free and paid papers. Even so, there are marked differences between papers that are primarily run locally and those who receive more direction from their corporate leadership. We’ll look at this and other issues in future columns.

Now, back to setting up that remote access system.


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