Geneva, Switzerland





Newspapers Are Forgetting a Lesson Learned Long Ago – Less Is Best

Newspapers are quick to blame free tabloids and the Internet for their falling circulation – a global phenomenon -- but the fact is many newspapers have but themselves to blame for forgetting a very important marketing lesson: “less is best.” In other words, with so much newsprint to wade through each day, readers have decided it’s not worth the effort, and they are turning elsewhere for something more news-friendly.

A personal experience from within the industry itself to help prove the point: Back in the 1970s this writer was a news editor and marketing executive with UPI in Europe. In those days UPI bureaus filed their coded copy directly into a message switching center which then distributed the stories automatically to media subscribers at approximately 50 words a minute, the standard speed in those days.

Problem was that at about 1700 every weekday the system became seriously overloaded and once it reached 90% capacity it would start throwing copy away. Desperate messages would go out from the editing center to stop filing or to file only page 1 stories and that would last until about 2000. Of course, telling a journalist his/her story was not page 1 didn’t really fly then (and it probably doesn’t fly today) so every day the system continued to overload and stories were lost.

The technicians came up with the so-called bright answer. Since the system overloads by only sending copy out at 50 words a minute let’s keep the input at 50 words a minute but speed up the output by 50% to 75 words a minute. Well, everyone around the table thought that was a great idea and the project was on. And within months it was time to tell our clients of the revolutionary change that we were going to provide them, and at no additional charge!

Out went the self-laudatory messages to subscribers advising them to upgrade their reception material, orders were given to the various PTTs to upgrade circuits and we sat back waiting for the “Thank-you’s”.

What we got, however, was something quite different. Practically every subscriber protested against the upspeed. The basic message was, “ We can hardly keep up with what you are providing us at 50 words a minute; we don’t have the time or staff to handle 50% more copy from you (most subscribers had to translate the material into their own language). If you upgrade the service speed it is going to increase our costs and we will likely have to give up another source of information so we handle your additional load.”

But the die was cast, UPI had gone too far, and the upgraded speed was implemented, but the lesson was never lost on those of us involved. You can take that story and transplant it into today’s newspaper world.

Over the years newspapers have grown thicker and thicker. Marketing folk come up with bright ideas for new sections and the sales people bring in more new advertisers for those sections. And the time it takes to go through the newspaper grows and grows too; what used to be a 10-20 minute read has grown to 30 minutes on a daily basis and for some weekend editions it’s more than an hour.

And the fact is it has all become too much. When asked in various surveys readers are saying they do not want to plow through so much newsprint every day. And faced with the thickness of what lands on their doorstep, they are progressively opting out of even starting. And for those who tell the reader, “just read the section you want and don’t bother with what you don’t want,” it is the overall look of the total product that is the turn-off.

The Washington Post has found out from talking with its subscribers that this is a major issue. It is now facing competition from the Washington Examiner, a free upstart that has put a new twist into the free tabloids and provides free delivery in affluent neighborhoods. Obviously the Examiner doesn’t have nearly the news or advertising coverage of the Washington Post, but the question that will decide the Examiner’s success is whether it is good enough for the needs of its readers.

In the UK, the broadsheet Sunday Times which rivals many American newspapers with the number of different news sections in each issue, is said to be discussing turning some of those sections into the more-favored tabloid size. That puts the information in a more “reader-friendly” format, but is it really going to change the “thickness” of the newspaper?

Obviously, there is an exercise here for the beloved “bean-counters”. Given today’s circulation numbers vis-a-vis profit/loss, what would happen if the number of sections were reduced -- meaning less newsprint, less journalists, less sales people etc. etc. and therefore with less space available for advertisers market forces increase the advertising cost? And if “less” product meant a higher circulation which means higher advertising rates then is that not a way forward? Downsizing is a dirty word in many quarters, but newspapers may have reached a point where they need to seriously consider it to win back readers.

Also not lost on this writer is a conversation he had many years ago with the publisher of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, the leading broadsheet newspaper in the Nordic region. The newspaper had just reached a new circulation high and I congratulated him. But to my surprise he was grumpy. He explained there comes a point where higher circulation does not add to higher profits; indeed it can lead to lower profits. More newsprint is bought, more workers are necessary, etc. There were probably some “crocodile tears” there, but again the point was not lost. More is not always best.

One last trip down memory lane. This writer lived in London when he was a young boy. And he remembers well that each day through the letterbox came at least three paid-for daily newspapers (yes, they fit through the letterbox!). And on Sunday it could have been four. Circulation for the News of the World was in excess of 5 million on Sunday, and for many daily broadsheets circulation was in excess of 1 million. London may well have been the most competitive newspaper market in the world.

But today, the situation is very different. At home, if there is a delivered newspaper, it is usually just one (and doubtful it fits through the letterbox). And Saturday papers have become so thick that many of those readers have opted out of Sunday’s. Or if they take Sunday they have opted out of Saturday. It is all just too much to read. In these past 50 years circulation of newspapers in the UK have dropped tremendously. (The News of the World, for instance, is now down to 3.8 million and many other newspapers count their circulation in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions).

Newspaper folk first blamed television news for their decline, and then the Internet. And now comes the free tabloid. Of course the price is right, but so is the content – its brief and you’re done in 30 minutes.

And as publishers globally ponder about the success of the free tabloids – and how some have even become circulation leaders in various markets -- perhaps it is a wake-up call to the industry to think back to the way it used to be.

Cheap to buy and quick to read. Come to think of it, isn’t that what the free tabloid is today?


There is another lesson to be learned from the UPI story. Bureaus, realizing the capacity of the switching center had increased, sent more and more stories into the system. Within a year, even with the increased output speed, the system overflowed daily by 1700.

© Philip M. Stone of  Stone & Associates, a partner in followthemedia.com


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