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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Will newspapers stop publishing on Mondays and Tuesdays?

The question of whether or not newspapers are being bold enough in their efforts to adapt to the new publishing environment is one that comes up a lot.

I don't see evidence of particularly bold thinking in New Zealand yet, although to be fair papers here have a bit more leeway than their overseas counterparts given this is a less competitive market with relatively low broadband uptake (limiting, for the time being, the dominance of the web in a number of regions, especially rural).

This special report from Editor&Publisher looks at how US newspapers are adapting (regional as well as metro) and canvasses opinion on whether they're going far enough.

It's a nice wrap of the current market and hits on a few interesting points. Of particular interest to me was that while some newspapers are publising slimmer editions on slow days, others are cutting out slow days altogether. I've pulled out a few paragraphs below.

I once read a prediction, where I can't remember, that over time a lot of newspapers would evolve into weekly publications with daily news published on their websites. This has long struck me as a likely scenario. Is this the beginning of that process?

Tim McGuire, [a change expert and the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications,] says his advice for newspapers now is to radically rethink what the newspaper looks like day to day.

Monday's paper might be just 16 pages, covering more sports than news. Tuesday, another loser for most dailies, might even drop sports. The Sunday paper would be almost unchanged, the product for mass distribution not only of ad inserts but as a "convener" of the whole community to have a conversation. And to get everybody in the door, he suggests dramatically lowering the price of that fat Sunday paper.

Some newspapers are already going the route of shrinkage. The San Jose Mercury News, for instance, is in the process of downsizing its Monday and Tuesday editions. "We are looking at trying to tighten up stories and see how we can convey more information in less space," says Editor/Vice President David J. Butler.

The Salt Lake Tribune, another MediaNews Group Inc. paper, is also greeting the beginning of the workweek with smaller papers, something Editor Nancy Conway says is a positive step: "The key is not to have fewer stories; the vision is to make them smaller."

The time could be ripe for fulfilling a longtime fantasy of some publishers — eliminating dog days like Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday. It's fueled by the obvious fact that in the U.S., at least, newspapers generally lose money during the week and coin it on Fridays and Sundays, says INMA's executive director Earl Wilkinson: "I know of newspapers that for 20 years have had blueprints for killing days of the week."

In recent weeks, two small GateHouse Media Inc.-owned dailies in Illinois actually implemented those plans. Tony Scott, publisher of the Daily Review Atlas in Monmouth, Ill., told readers that the paper had been thinking about eliminating Mondays for at least two years, and were finally pushed to do it by newsprint costs that soared 45% year-over-year and rising gas prices. Its sibling Kewanee (Ill.) Star Courier also dropped Mondays.

In Wisconsin, the Forum Communications-owned Daily Telegram in Superior went even further, announcing in July that come September, it was dropping four of its six publishing days while shifting daily reporting to its Web site. In making the decision to switch to a twice-weekly, paid-circ model, Publisher Ken Browall says all options were open for the 5,500-circ evening daily — from turning tabloid to going to free distribution.

INMA's Wilkinson is skeptical that larger-circulation newspapers will actually pull the trigger on the idea of eliminating Mondays. But Alan Jacobson, president and CEO of Brass Tacks Design, thinks it could become as widespread an industry practice as narrowing web widths.

"Staffing a newsroom seven days a week has been tough," he says. Newspapers, Jacobson figures, will drop a day following the same logic many papers are using in lopping off feature sections for low-circ days. "Reporters spend a lot of time on those feature stories," he says. "You eliminate that section, and you just bought yourself three days of reporting time — if you still have that reporter."

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