Is 24/7 Digital and Sunday-Only Print the Future for Local News?

Some small weekly news outlets are getting more web-savvy, posting online when the news happens and in effect transforming themselves into daily digital publications. Some metro dailies, on the other hand, have made strides online but are cutting back on their print days.

Is it possible that local news outlets of all sizes will meet in the middle?

In the future, will most local news outlets publish 24/7 online but put ink on paper only once a week, perhaps only on Sunday?

“In a lot of ways, the weekly newspaper may be the survivor,” said Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association. “[There is] a lot of talk about metro dailies and big dailies eventually going to one day a week and publishing on Sundays only. We hear that all the time, like that’s probably where we’re headed. And we know there are markets where big metro dailies only publish a few days a week, so they’re not far off from becoming a weekly. So the print product probably survives a lot longer than people think it will.”

The trend toward fewer print days is nationwide. In 2019 and 2020, the McClatchy newspaper chain, one of the nation’s biggest, stopped printing Saturday papers at all of its outlets.

When the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, a Lee Enterprises paper, dropped its Monday and Tuesday print editions last year, that made Wyoming the first state with no seven-days-a-week local newspapers.

While some newspapers have gone to six days a week, others have gone much further. The Tampa Bay Times, for example, prints only on Sunday and Wednesday. Even in places where print frequency is staying at seven days, some news outlets have long promoted more truncated subscription offers, such as three days a week. The daily print habit is eroding.

Downsizing in Texas

Southern Newspapers, with 10 papers in Texas and one in Oklahoma, is an example of a small chain that has cut back on print.

“Last year as Covid became apparent, we moved quickly, got out of the seven-day-a-week print business,” said Leonard Woolsey, President of the chain and Publisher of its flagship Galveston County Daily News. “We took all our sevens to five. We took our fives to three or two.”

“Importantly, the products still have seven-day-a-week news budgets and news cycles,” he said. “So even though we don’t deliver a paper seven days a week, there is an active news cycle and reporting staff in place. Because people who subscribe to us digitally exclusively or look at us on their phones seven days a week are still expecting news. We’re still going to deliver that.”

I think [print is] always going to be part of the model. And it might not be five days a week. It might be two days a week or one day a week.

Leonard Woolsey, President, Southern Newspapers

Woolsey said the publisher at Southern’s Bay City Tribune told him that even though it prints only twice a week, it’s “almost a daily newspaper.”

Woolsey’s Galveston paper has about 15,000 print subscribers, and he believes print is here to stay even if circulation and frequency keep dropping.

“We might not have 15,000 print newspapers going out, but we might have 5,000 print newspapers going out in five years or 10 years,” Woolsey said. “I think it’s always going to be part of the model. And it might not be five days a week. It might be two days a week or one day a week. Because I think it’s a product that people appreciate, the experience of sitting down with a physical newspaper and walking through it. And I think there’s a terrific model out there for having a powerful print weekend product and then digital for the rest of the week.”

Southern Newspapers
Leonard Woolsey, President of Southern Newspapers, says his chain in Texas and Oklahoma has reduced print frequency.

Sunday-only in Arkansas

A big newspaper that took the leap to Sunday-only print is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a bold experiment begun in early 2018, Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. discontinued daily print delivery, lent iPads to subscribers so they could read a digital replica edition, and published a print edition only on Sundays. This month, Hussman’s WEHCO Media announced it was expanding its iPad-plus-Sunday-print approach to another newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee.

According to a data analysis last year by the Medill Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette lost only 1% of its subscribers per month after completing its move to Sunday-only print. That’s an exceptionally low “churn” rate.

Interviewed recently, Hussman said the change remained popular.

“Very rarely do we ever hear from somebody saying, ‘Oh, I wish I had that print edition back,’” Hussman said. “People just love all the features of it that are so much better than the print edition. No. 1 is being able to blow up the type just by moving two fingers. But they love a lot about it.”

“I think Sunday print is the smart way to go during the conversion because it probably helps with the conversion,” he said. “You get a higher percentage of people who are willing to do it.”

So is Sunday-only print just a transitional phase before a move to digital-only?

“We’re going to do what the customers want,” Hussman said. “It could happen, but it’s not something that we’re going to dictate.”

We’re going to do what the customers want. [Digital-only] could happen, but it’s not something that we’re going to dictate.

Walter Hussman Jr., Publisher, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Some customers, though, are becoming so accustomed to the digital replica that Sunday print is an afterthought, Hussman said.

“This fellow was telling me one day, ‘You know, I really do love that iPad digital replica you do.’ He said, ‘I read it every day. In fact, the other day I read the paper, pretty much read the whole paper, and I looked over and the paper still had the rubber band around it.’ Which was the Sunday paper.”

“The one area that’s growing just organically on its own is the people who have an iPad … that just do seven-day digital,” Hussman said. “They don’t want the Sunday print edition. That doesn’t happen automatically. That kind of happens over time.”

Is it difficult to get delivery staff for one day?

“No, it’s not,” Hussman said. “You just have to pay them more. On a per-piece basis you’ve got to pay them more than when they had the paper seven days a week. We really didn’t count on that. So it’s been more expensive for us to do that. But as far as getting people to do it, not much of a problem. … The people who were doing it seven days a week, they kind of say, yeah, it was a part-time job before, and it’s still a part-time job. So they fill in their time with some other part-time job.”

Hussman said he agrees with the assessment of Local Media Association’s Lane that many newspapers seem headed for Sunday-only print.

“I think the Kansas Citys, the Cincinnatis, maybe not New York or Washington and L.A., I think almost every paper is going to end up being a weekly print paper,” he said.

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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