How the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today can resurrect circulation of their print editions

By Leslie C. Norins, MD, PhD | March 1, 2017

The “Big Three” national print newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today) have been battered by declines in circulation and advertising. Their initial retreat turned into a rout, which has degenerated into sauve qui peut. The battleground is littered with the carcasses of cutbacks and layoffs. Pessimism permeates print. The enemy is claimed to be “digital”

But even at this late stage, the situation can be turned around. With apologies to military heroes, hark to the words of WWI Marine captain Lloyd Williams: “Retreat, hell, we just got here!”

What have the Big Three done so far to help their print editions repel, or at least hold the line against, the incursions of digital substitutes? Candid answer: nothing. It’s been one abject surrender after another. Slash, not the attacker, but your own print staff and budgets. Corporate seppuku.

Time to counterattack. The new goal is not vanquishing digital, but a prosperous modus vivendi; regain sufficient print circulation to restore print’s respect and finances.

Smartphones did not cause all print’s losses

Digital has been a convenient villain, because blaming that medium has headed off incisive inquiry into the weaknesses in marketing the print enterprise. Smartphones are not “winning” the battle with print; they are sheltering the refugee readers and advertisers who left print or never learned its advantages.

The print edition conveys an image of success.

The medium does convey a message. The image of the print edition was, and can be again, much more powerful than digital’s. Here’s the new paradigm for the Big Three:
“The print newspaper is a visible badge of membership in a desirable club”.

Reading, even carrying, a Big Three newspaper says something to others about you, including your view of yourself. Like the car you select. The beer you drink. Upmarket sneakers. Platinum credit card.

Illustration: you’re seated at your flight’s gate at O’Hare. Across from you are two casually dressed men of similar age. One is reading the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The other is scrolling and clicking on his iPhone. If you had to bet, which one are you more certain is a person of substance? Which one would you ask to watch your kid while you run to the restroom? Of course, it’s the newspaper reader, because the cellphone guy could be browsing emails, Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder, even porn. Print is positive. Digital is iffy.

The inherent power of the print edition’s image has been ignored too long. Time to employ it to attract new subscribers.

Notice the tables have turned. The ubiquity of smartphones has rendered mere possession useless for the image reinforcement it used to provide the owner. Buying the latest iPhone won’t help; the new generations of the device are recognizable only to the cognoscenti

The print edition has a better display than digital.

You can buy the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the head of a pin. But reading it there is a lot different than reading it in a Bible. So, yes, technology can shrink the display size of content. But there’s a cost. As the initial article fills more and more of the contracting screen, the surrounding content is progressively excluded. Voila, the smartphone.

Suppose in an article’s fifth paragraph there is the “nugget” that will save your business. On the smartphone display, you get the first two or three mini-paragraphs, but have no idea what lies beyond them. If you already know this initial stuff, why scroll on? Unless you are prescient, and know that further ahead lies the text you need, you click and move to another article.

The small screen of the smartphone is not even fully available for conveying article content. My “big” iPhone 7 screen measures 2 ¾ x 4 ¾ inches. Just 13 square inches. When held vertically, the top ½ inch is taken up by ever-present phone operational displays.

And every two, maybe three, short paragraphs of one-column text a 1 ¾ inch picture is inserted. Or an ad, per digitalian revenue dicta. During this particular examination, a one-inch obstructive pop-up also appeared, urging me to subscribe (apparently not recognizing I already do).

But here’s where the print edition shines. It’s an easy-to-read display; each Journal page is 12 x 22 inches (The Times is ½ inch narrower). A glorious 264 square inches. Twenty times the smartphone’s.

The print page’s display is 20x the phone’s.

You can see the entire article at once by merely moving your eyes. No scrolling or clicking. No mid-column pictures to interrupt thought, or ads to click you away to an advertiser’s website. And the print ads are not fighting the text, they are living harmoniously alongside it. So the print edition is more interesting, pleasant and fulfilling.

Beware that when you point this out to the tech zealots, they will scream something like “DPICPCUI720X90!”. Respond: “Go double truck yourselves, with a dink.”

Only the print edition provides depth and serendipity.

Don’t today’s readers want their news via online tidbits? Maybe the teens, the goingnowherians, the illiterati. But these are not, and never have been, the logical subscribers and prospects for the Big Three print editions. Yes, news “snacks” have migrated to smartphones, furnished quickly and often free by curatizers, summarizers, condensers, and plagiarists of all stripe. Facebook “trending” headlines? Amateur hour. Fuhgeddaboudit.

But answer this: which airline would a successful person (who’s not a masochist) rather book for a serious flight: the one which serves a full dinner or the one that serves only peanuts? However, if peanuts are vigorously marketed as much better than dinner, and the “dinner” airline does nothing, travelers can be brainwashed to prefer the nuts. They’ll keep you from starving, but not meet your nutritional needs.

Only the print edition provides the depth and breadth sufficient for a well-informed person.

Breadth confers print’s most striking benefit: the opportunity for “serendipity”. As your peripheral vision takes in the other headlines on the page, and the facing one, you are alerted to other worthwhile developments which had previously escaped your notice. I’ve gotten many new useful ideas this way, unexpectedly.

Conversely, this advantageous breadth of print is a major weakness of the “curated” narrow feeds on digital. They often furnish content only according to your expressed or algorithmized interests. These formulae lead one into ever-deeper ruts. They provide no fuel for creative cross-pollination or increase of a person’s broader knowledge.

Crypto-elitism may hinder print marketing

Because of the stature of the Big Three, some of their failure to market their print editions aggressively seems to stem from an attitude that subscribers enroll at the sufferance of the company. Something like, “If the peasants want to have our print edition, it’s their job to find us and apply. And if they are lazy, and the print edition dies, it does so nobly, without soiling its boots with the mud of commoners.” It’s time for an attitude adjustment.

Missing in action: creative campaigns for print edition

The Big Three are discretionary purchases. So they must be marketed. But when’s the last time you saw an ad, or received a solicitation, to subscribe to print? OK, excuse the past couple years, because newspaper executives have been busy putting on their life preservers.

But before that? I’m an avid follower of such things, and I can only recall two—probably decades old. The classic, oft-repeated, long-profitable Wall Street Journal campaign “two men” (two similar guys started out equal, but one read the Journal and prospered; the other didn’t.) And, “I got my job through the New York Times” (that was to boost the classified section, not subscriptions).

Now, ponder on Red Bull, Nike, athleisure, tattoos, craft booze. How did these products come from nowhere to enroll armies of new “subscribers”? Effective marketing.

Some opine it’s futile for the Big Three print editions to try to attract millennials or boomers. Nonsense. Not one of these newspapers has tried effectively. Too busy with the digital seductress.

Three tactics to recruit print subscribers

Millennials and boomers are pliable, and very subject to persuasion and peer pressure. Accordingly, here are three tactics guaranteed to provide fuel for convincing ads which will attract younger prospects to the print editions:

First, search diligently, and find a dozen successful ones who profitably read the print edition of one or more Big Three. They are out there if you look. Their stories will be inspiring. Include: why they depend on print, and find the online presentations—including digital editions of the Big Three—aren’t sufficient.

Second, hire a panel of ambitious millennials, and one of boomers, to read the print edition diligently for 90 days (Yes, pay them to do this in good faith), and provide you their honest opinions of its usefulness. Maybe it won’t suit some. OK, we respect their views; the print edition is not for everybody. But harvest and promote the conclusions of those who did find it useful, maybe surprisingly so.

Third, engage selected “influencers” of millennials and of boomers to honestly endorse the print edition. Politicians, entertainers, athletes. Even a Kardashian?

Imagine a year from now: one successful millennial, holding his Times, says to his employee, “Are you still using that iPhone for news? Isn’t it time you graduated to the print edition?”

Finally, here’s how to scare the bejesus out of your editors: provide new subscribers a money-back guarantee of 100% satisfaction with content.

Remedy print’s distribution lapses

Have efforts to increase single-copy sales been abandoned? True story. I’ve had occasion to visit the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn several times in the past couple years. It’s probably the hippest area in New York. As the district boomed, progressively more sophisticated hotels have become available. So, my upward sequence of hostelries has been La Jolie, Wythe, McCarran, and William Vale (locals recognize these names). The latter three consider themselves modern and trendy.

As is my custom, each time I checked in I requested copies of the Journal and Times be delivered to my room each morning. If not free, I would gladly pay. Sorry, not available. Well, is there a hotel shop where I could buy them? No. How about a store in the neighborhood which sells them? No.

(But to their credit, the front desk team in each facility offed to pick them up at some distant vendor, as they commuted to work in the morning. And they did. The William Vale now has a few copies available on premises.).

I felt certain the hotel staffs were mistaken, as they didn’t live in the neighborhood. Surely, many sale points of the print editions were close by. Especially in this millennial-rich area. Probably every one of the numerous bodegas carried the papers.

Early one morning I trudged through the main streets of Williamsburg. Stopped in every grocery and deli. No and no. But always a hopeful comment like “But I think there may be a bodega over at (5 miles away) who sells papers”.

Here I was, a mile across the East River from the national headquarters of the Times and Journal. In their backyard. But I couldn’t find their papers to buy. Something’s wrong. You can’t get millennials and boomers to try your print product if it’s not available. Seeing even one print copy displayed per store will give lie to digital’s dictatorship. Show the flag!

The bottom line.

The print editions of the Big Three can earn again their rightful place at the media table. But this requires recognizing their many advantages over digital, and effectively marketing these. With renewed courage and incisive initiatives, a prosperous journalistic and financial future for these editions can be assured▪︎

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