The Case Against Sunday Newspaper Magazines
If cost-cutting is necessary, new thinking is required
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
As the economic picture darkened somewhat in recent months, it became clear that tough times were likely ahead for much of the print newspaper business. Now they are here, as the recent quarterly earnings announcement from Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, made evident. Gannett has subsequently launched another major round of layoffs, and the market capitalization of its more than 250 papers is now less than $350 million, while its stock trades near a 22-month low. Expense cuts are the order of the day across the industry, especially as 2023 budget planning continues apace.
Thinking anew, acting anew
But very little of that expense cutting is likely to be creative, to truly re-think aspects of print newspapers as their secular decline continues. Like most everyone else, I prefer growing revenues to cutting expenses as the best route out of difficulty. But growing print revenues is pretty much impossible these days—the momentary exception at the New York Times is best understood, I think, as what Wall Street callously refers to as a “dead cat bounce.” More typical is what Gannett saw in the second quarter, which it described as accelerating advertising declines it had anticipated would occur over years to come.
I do feel for publishers and editors looking for expense cuts, and so want to offer a suggestion that seems to me long overdue. I think it’s past time to eliminate print newspaper Sunday magazines.
First, let me be clear: I am not advocating eliminating the best longform stories that continue to distinguish many of these magazines. Rather, I think those stories should be redeployed to other sections and published throughout the week (as they often already are online), or placed elsewhere in Sunday papers.
I am proposing saving on the very considerable expense of separately printing (often on higher quality paper), binding and inserting Sunday magazines, as well as eliminating such of their other (often light) features as won’t fit naturally into the rest of papers. (Features that do fit well should also be redeployed.)
It’s not 1975 anymore
Sunday magazines were created when there was no effective way to display such longform pieces elsewhere in papers. That is no longer the case, and hasn’t been, in most cases, for many years. They were created when newspapers had fewer daily sections, thus fewer display pages. They were created when color printing capacity was much less, and photo reproduction poorer. They were created, of course, when the contents of papers could only be delivered once a day, and at a time when newsstands were prevalent and single copy sales much more robust. In other words, Sunday magazines are the product of another time.
What is holding back this shift at papers—most of the best ones—where it has not already occurred? Part of it, I suspect, is bureaucratic politics in newsrooms, where magazine staffs long since became fiefs. Some will say that print advertising revenues will be lost. But first, most of the revenues already have been; the surviving magazines are physically flimsy. And second, some of this revenue may be able to be relocated—after all, the audience the advertisers were seeking to reach presumably remains.
What about subscribers?
And there’s the rub, maybe. It is on the subscription side that the more powerful concerns are likely to arise. (It is a telling sign of Gannett’s lack of progress in selling digital subscriptions, for instance, that Rick Edmunds reported recently that 88% of their subscription revenue comes from print.)
Will print readers cancel their subscriptions (which in many cases are Sunday-only) when their magazine disappears? I think not. They will likely be unhappy, as subscribers tend to be with all changes—even when for the better, as with many redesigns—but those print subscribers who have stuck around through a quarter century of digital publishing tend to skew quite a bit older. They remain with newspapers because of the habits of a lifetime, and a felt inability to otherwise access the news they seek. Another missing section won’t change that.
Ending Sunday magazines will save some money, at least forestalling some job losses in the broader newsroom. Much more important, they will send an internal signal of recognition that changing times require changing tactics, that managers are willing to look afresh. As newspapers continue their compelled transition from print to digital, that kind of thinking is very much required.
Second Rough Draft will be on vacation next week, and should return September 8.
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