Things that make you go “hmm”: Raising prices and declines at small papers

Thought I would share a couple of things I’ve read out there on those darn Internets that have puzzled me lately.

First is Poynter’s Rick Edmonds calling for newspapers to substantially raise their prices, noting that US newspapers are much more of a bargain in the United States than in most places abroad, especially in an era in which we all plunk down a substantial chunk of change for gussied-up caffeination at the ‘Buck or similar. Apparently he found an international analyst that agreed with him. This runs counter to what almost everybody I talk to lately is saying, which is that the exact opposite is a much better idea — going free and therefore increasing your penetration and thus, of course, your value to advertisers.

If you ask a room full of college students if they would be more likely to read a paper if it is given to them in a convenient manner for free, the vast majority will raise their hands (although these are, of course, journalism students and obviously there is a response bias, e.g. wanting to look good in front of the teacher.) A fellow doc student, Karen Boyajy, is studying the impact of going free on the business model for her dissertation, and I can’t wait to read the results. Several papers including the Columbia Missourian and the Examiner in DC and other cities are experimenting with a free weekly edition delivered to everyone in town.

I’m no media economist, but I have to say that I’m not sure Edmond’s idea makes a whole lot of sense to me — it just seems like you’d have to raise prices pretty high to make up for your losses in classifieds and elsewhere — and there isn’t much value-added in the print edition of most papers that you can’t get online for free, at least not yet. Not to mention that some of your best customers are people like me who read newspapers avidly, are willing to pay for them — but would actually just PREFER to read them online because it’s easier.

Second, I’m trying to figure out what’s up with the bad news at small newspapers, which many of us were holding out hope would be keepers of the flame if all the metro dailies crashed and burned. After all, with everybody all abuzz about hyperlocal news, it seems obvious that small papers, which are somewhat hyperlocal by definition, would have a leg up. But Jennifer Saba of E&P did a story awhile back on how, surprisingly, small papers declined more than big ones in circulation recently. My friend and fellow doc student Jeremy Littau points out that the numbers don’t distinguish between small dailies and weeklies — many of us have heard that weeklies are thriving, at least relatively speaking. But none of us could quite figure out the explanation for this, unless it’s the bad economy or an erosion of quality at these papers, many of which have probably also undergone some cuts to staff or other resources.

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Filed under Business of News, Real Live Changing Newsrooms

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