Newspapers should sell the press — and use the mailman

I’ve been mulling over Doug Fisher’s intriguing and, at first glance, entirely sensible suggestion to disentangle newspapers from their printing presses. I wonder if this could be the first part of a radical two-step that might help papers prepare for or transition to the online future in a way they haven’t been able to do yet. Fisher writes:

Many smaller newspapers have had their printing done by contract for years. Headlines have come recently, however, as big-city newspapers (think San Francisco, Boston and now New York) explore outsourcing or consolidating printing, even in the absence of a joint operating agreement. Chains such as McClatchy and Media News are also consolidating printing, even if it means earlier deadlines and longer truck routes.

They should go one step further: Move their printing operations into a separate subsidiary with no ties to the newsroom. Newsrooms would pay to print the paper and be free to take their business to a less expensive or more responsive competitor.

This would get the albatross of “big iron’s” debt and depreciation off newsrooms’ backs. It would position those printing operations better for sale. And it would make the pressroom and the newsroom more efficient in accounting for costs and generating new business.

I would go even a step beyond that.

If, as David Sullivan wrote a couple months ago, “newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists”; and if, as Fisher writes, “Newsrooms need an honest accounting of the costs and revenues associated with producing, distributing and selling the news,” selling off the press is only half a solution. Here’s a possible other half:

Newspapers should get out of the delivery business and send papers through the mail.

Leave aside, for a moment, the new logistical issues this would create. In his post, Fisher imagines the conversations that might go on if newspapers didn’t have to worry about presses:

“Given the cost, we can only afford limited space in print. But for smaller marginal cost, we can expand it with multimedia, maps, online chats, etc. Several experts blog on that; let’s see if we can get them into the mix.” But for another story it might be: “That’s better for print where readers can have more time with it and it fits our “print” demographic more closely; let’s take some time on that and see what we can do to augment it online.” Or it might even be: “We can’t afford to cover that, but what community resources do we have that can help us?”

Now imagine the conversation if newsrooms also didn’t have to worry (or had to worry less) about delivery:

“Well, the paper won’t reach readers until the afternoon, or until they get home from work in the evening. But that’s ok — readers have been telling us for years that they don’t have time in the morning. Anyway, most of the paper is old news by the time it hits readers’ driveways. So let’s try to take advantage of our new time delay. We’ll put most of the breaking or one-sentence news on our web site where it belongs and put more explanatory, contextual stuff in the paper. So when people get home they can read about why the stuff they heard about during the day is important, what it means. And since we no longer have to pad the paper with instantly outdated news, it’ll be both a more streamlined and a more informative, surprising read than before.”

This wouldn’t work for all papers at once; it could be too abrupt for areas with, say, heavily older demographics or for papers with limited web sites. But for bigger city papers and papers with robust sites and strong online readership, getting out of the delivery business would force a necessary psychological shift for both newsrooms and consumers — that print is no longer the proper medium for much of the current content — as much as it would herald a business shift.

Now back to the logistics. First, you’d still need to deliver the papers from the plant to post offices, but potential cost savings here seem considerable. Take the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a random example. The Post-Dispatch has a daily circulation of 255,000; there are 639 post offices in St. Louis, and let’s conservatively double that to account for the entire metro area. Delivering papers to 1,200 post offices versus to 255,000 individuals or businesses (or even to — again conservatively — 150,000 separate locations if some are delivered as bundles to machines and store racks) is quite a difference. That’s not even mentioning the reduced emissions achieved by sending papers out on mail trucks’ existing routes instead of via separate fleets.

Could the postal service handle an influx of daily newspapers? I can’t answer that without doing some more research. But according to the USPS web site, new equipment and a 22 percent drop in the amount of first-class mail since 1998 have created “excess processing capacity at many postal facilities where mail is canceled and sorted.” It seems like some of those extra resources could be used to help sort daily papers, creating a win-win for the USPS — excess capacity is no longer idle, and new revenues start coming in from newspapers paying for postage.

Sending newspapers through the mail would take the American newspaper industry full circle back to its beginnings. As Paul Starr recounts in his excellent 2004 book The Creation of the Media, America had “an early edge [versus European countries] in newspapers and newspaper reading” because the government subsidized papers with discounted postal rates (while European countries taxed papers) and let papers be sent from any post office (while papers in Europe mostly had to be sent from capitals). The result? By 1830, the postal service carried “2 million more newspapers than letters. In 1832, newspapers made up 95 percent of the weight of postal communication and only 15 percent of the revenue.” In this respect, newspapers should return to their roots.

One big stumbling block to this proposal: Sunday papers. In the medium to long term, Sunday papers could give up the charade and get delivered on Fridays — by which time all but a few pages of most current Sunday papers are finished — with any breaking weekend news being posted on the web site. In addition to reducing logistical/delivery costs, this would free papers to better utilize or further reduce weekend shell staffing (by “reduce” I mean “allow people to work a normal week,” not “fire weekend workers.”) In the short term, I’m not sure how to get around the Sunday paper problem. But continuing non-USPS delivery one day a week, even given Sundays’ typically higher circulation, should still save quite a bit compared to seven-day delivery.

Again, I haven’t done enough research to know if this is viable. I also know I’m not the first to suggest this; Sullivan broached the topic in the post I mentioned above, and Jeff Jarvis wrote last month that newspapers “should get out of the printing business.” But Fisher’s post was one of the first I’ve seen detailing what getting out of the printing business might actually entail and accomplish.

Even though a mailed newspaper that puts most of its breaking news online is more of a leap than I probably believe is possible for the time being, it’s a potentially key step in getting newspapers out of the logistics business. And as an interim step between now and an all-online future, it could be psychologically (if not financially) even more significant than off-loading the printing press.

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