July 3, 2024

Potential print subscribers to Gannett’s 200-plus regional papers are finding something different when checking their local publications’ offers this holiday week. A seven-day or six-day trial subscription is not available. The only print plus digital option is Sunday or, in some cases, Sunday plus one additional weekday, typically Wednesday.

The new pattern is just a test, and a short-term one for now, chief communications officer Lark-Marie Antón told me by email. It started Tuesday and runs through Friday, concurrent with what the company has billed as a “holiday sale.”

She added that depending on the response, the trial of the narrower range of subscription choices could be extended.

It would be “wrong and misleading,” Antón added, to see this as an indicator that Gannett is close to eliminating print most days of the week. I can’t help but think, however, that it represents a toe in the water to see if that makes sense.

The basic Sunday or Sunday-plus offer is for an initial rate of 92 cents a week, typically for three months — then a higher rate kicks in. The discounted subscription totals $11.96 for the three months.

Some variation is in place at every Gannett regional paper, but not USA Today, which has a print plus digital offer for all five days the national newspaper is printed.

The restricted-choice offer applies only to new subscribers. Established print subscribers can still renew for six- or seven-day delivery.

Gannett and other chains have already been cutting back on print bit by bit. Gannett . McClatchy at its 30 papers. Earlier this year Gannett said it had switched from its own distribution operation to postal service delivery in 70 markets. That meant deadlines for the Sunday edition were pushed back so subscribers could get it in the Saturday mail.

Relatively few papers have taken the bigger step of eliminating five or six days of print — among them Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Both did so in 2020.

The extreme version of lessened frequency comes with significant savings but also risks. Paper and pressroom costs go way down or the printing facility can be closed in favor of outsourcing. Also, distribution has grown punishingly expensive as the part-time, middle-of-the-night work has lost its appeal. So cutting that back is a big plus for the bottom line.

The challenge is to get print loyalists to try an e-mail replica edition instead and thus keep circulation numbers and rates up and minimize advertising losses.

Gannett is often a bell cow for other companies. Should this week’s e-test be extended or many print editions eventually sunsetted, that would pull along cautious publishers unwilling so far to take the plunge.

Gannett has been making the case to investors for several years that it is fully committed to digital transition. Even a limited trial like the one this week underscores the point.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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