Why the Sunday Print Edition Still Reigns Supreme For Publishers

May 1, 2017

By Sean Stroh

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m getting ready to read the news, but I’m not picking up my cell phone or booting up my laptop. I’m picking up my hefty 100-plus page Sunday edition of my local newspaper.

As someone you would consider a millennial, you might find it hard to believe that’s how I choose to spend my Sunday mornings. Of course, since we no longer have to wait for the news of the world to come solely from the pages of a newspaper, and consequently, we seem to be busier than ever before, why spend what precious time we have with them?

Though I was never able to witness the golden age of newspapers, I can now attest to something else that still remains quite special—the Sunday newspaper experience.

It’s combing through the different sections, enjoying all the non-news related components, such as the comics and the coupons, where the experience differentiates itself from any other day of the week. Each Sunday morning, my routine consists of devoting an hour or two away from other distractions, with complete focus on absorbing the news I may have missed out on during the week. Admittedly, I can often find myself falling completely behind the never-ending news cycle by Wednesday, but Sundays give me a chance to play catch up. It’s a part of the week I generally look forward to, and try to relish, in the midst of a busy schedule.

In other words, my Sunday newspaper experience is a concoction of everything I enjoy the most: reading a physical print product filled with news I can trust at a leisurely pace while finding the occasional dollar saving deal. However, as much as I’ve enjoyed having a paper waiting for me every Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder why? And better yet, what are newspapers doing to maintain the quality of their Sunday print editions?

 Rediscovering the Value of Print

To my surprise, one newspaper discovered several years ago that people like me weren’t necessarily as rare as one may think.

A few years ago, the staff at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, was determined to figure out the digital side of things, particularly when it came to growing its online presence. Naturally, the general presumption was that they were doing what the readers in their market not only needed but wanted.

The newspaper’s leadership ultimately decided the best way to better understand their audience was through several focus groups organized into three age groups: 29 and under, 30 to 50, and 50-plus. Each group was composed of at least a dozen or so people. For a month, every person was given the daily task of looking at the paper’s website as well as the print edition delivered to their front porch.

‍Dick Fuller

“We were fully expecting them to tell us that they just weren’t into the print product and only wanted to see the digital stuff,” said Dick Fuller, director of circulation. “But when they came back in and we debriefed, almost everyone across all three age groups said they really enjoyed the Sunday paper. The youngest group emphasized how impressed they were by all that was inside the print edition on that day.”

Another surprise? Those print coupons found inside the newspaper were preferred over the mobile versions, especially amongst the under 30 age group.

“A common response we got was that the act of going through the print coupons was almost like therapy,” Fuller said. “They didn’t want more stuff on their phone or have to print anything out. We received answers like that even though we know the interviewers were trying to push them more on the idea of digital.”

Suddenly, a new question arose for The Blade: What would happen if they tried to grow their Sunday print product? At least on paper, the trend had been anything but growth, with the Sunday circulation number steadily declining 4 to 6 percent every year up until that point. With the revelations brought to them by the focus groups, Fuller said the staff recognized it wasn’t too late to reverse course.

Since shifting their approach back toward growing their Sunday print edition, the paper’s circulation has risen from 98,156 in 2014 to just under 100,000 in 2016. Having been told firsthand how beneficial the coupons and inserts were for readers, The Blade made a concerted effort to shine a light on the considerable amount of savings during their marketing campaign that followed. Soon, billboards, social media, and even billing statements featured the slogan: “The paper that pays for itself.”

“Newspapers need to continue to capitalize on their Sunday print edition. It’s not only about the content that is valued by the reader but the whole experience itself,” Fuller said. “In today’s world people talk about not having time for this or that, but on Sundays there is usually time to look at the paper. Even if someone may not have the time during the day, they can save it for later that night or the next morning since it’s not necessarily all breaking news or deadline type news.”


Time Well Spent

If there was a day to maneuver through the congested, oversaturated news market, Sunday would be the best day to it. The time factor is there, but it’s just a matter of if newspapers can effectively capture the attention of potential readers and do so in a consistent manner.

At The Sunday Times in London, a recent advertising campaign accentuated why that valuable time should be spent with their Sunday paper. Called “It all starts with The Sunday Times,” the campaign appears across TV, radio, print, film and online platforms.

“Sundays are now a day of action rather than relaxation and we are now making decisions for the days, weeks and years ahead,” Catherine Newman, chief marketing officer, said in an announcement. “The Sunday Times is uniquely positioned to help its readers make those decisions by providing them with actionable information and ideas. That is why our readers are a uniquely engaged and loyal audience who spend over 93 minutes with the paper.”

Back in the U.S., newspapers are finding that the Sunday print product is still an attractive option for readers before they start the work week as well.

‍Lynn Hamilton

Lynn Hamilton first joined the Arkansas Democrat more than four decades ago, and was there to witness what he describes as a “newspaper war” with the Arkansas Gazette.  The “war” ended in 1991 when the assets of the Gazette were sold to WEHCO Media Inc., parent company of the Democrat. The paper was then renamed the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A considerable factor of importance for the surviving paper, Hamilton said, was the strength of the Sunday edition.

“The readership in that Sunday paper was a big part of the reason that we were able to survive that war,” said Hamilton, who now serves as president and general manager. “Frankly, it’s just traditional for us to put out a really good Sunday print product.”

He acknowledged that the paper had “more Sunday subscribers by far” compared to daily subscribers, and estimated that number to be somewhere between 140,000 and 145,000.

For Hamilton, the Sunday experience offers more than just the physical act of holding something in your hands.

“If you look at the trend on e-books, people have tried them and now sales of those devices are going down because a printed book is truly easier to read. We feel newspapers are the same way,” he said. “You can open up a broadsheet page and quickly see all the headlines in front of you instead of scrolling around on your iPad. Eventually, there may be some digital device that is invented that comes along that clearly is superior but it’s not out there yet.”

So what exactly makes their Sunday product standout? Sunday editor Terry Austin alluded to the trust their readers have, and can take comfort in, with the paper that arrives at their doorstep.

“We’ve always tried to do the same thing: Give readers as much world, national, political, state, county and local news, sports and more as we possibly can, keeping it up to date and free of slant and misinformation. The rise of social media and internet sites makes that job much harder and all the more vital,” Austin said. “Our Sunday paper helps break through the minefield of distorted reports.”

A similar mantra rings true at the Dallas Morning News, where readers are provided with a sizeable amount of news content.

‍Jim Moroney

“When we compare our news hole to other newspapers in the country, we are very near if not at the top of the number of columns of news that we publish on Sundays throughout the year,” said Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO. “I think in a lot of ways that Sunday edition gives your subscribers a sense of how your business is doing, and the health of the paper as a whole.”

Meanwhile, some newspapers have expanded their Sunday print editions in neighboring markets.

Last November, the South Bend Tribune in Indiana began publication of the Elkhart Connection, a six to eight-page broadsheet consisting of columns, features and Q&As regarding the nearby city of Elkhart and Elkhart County. The special section is inserted into the Tribune’s Sunday paper and delivered to roughly 3,000 subscribers in Elkhart County.

‍Michael Wanbaugh

“We chose the Sunday paper as the home of Elkhart Connection because of its broader circulation scope and expanded news, enterprise, sports and feature coverage,” said Michael Wanbaugh, local news editor. “Our top objective was to create a buzz in the Elkhart community with our coverage, and the feedback we’ve received thus far is encouraging.”

In Charleston, S.C., the Post and Courier launched a similar type Sunday print expansion in the Columbia and Myrtle Beach areas.

‍P.J. Browning

“Readership statistics show that people spend more time with the Sunday paper and you’ve seen publishers take advantage of that by offering more to read,” said publisher P.J. Browning. “I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

The paper plans on printing an additional 5,000 copies for single copy purchase only before eventually offering home delivery in targeted areas within the two markets.

“Our Sunday edition continues to be the cornerstone of our franchise,” said Scott Embry, advertising director. “While it’s too early to estimate the long-term revenue impact, the expansion has provided us a platform to grow new and existing relationships.”

‍Scott Embry

Connecting Emotionally with Readers and Advertisers

After just a few weeks of becoming accustomed to having my Sunday paper delivered to my door, I started to recognize that there was an emotional connection there, not just a thirst for news that played a part in making my experience so special.

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., who specializes in the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, noted that emotion is in indeed what drives all consumption, including where we choose to get our news.

“The fundamental question should always be what is the emotional connection between the consumer and the product? And what can be done with that to create strategies that work for the business?” Murray said. “I just have a feeling that this question hasn’t been asked with newspapers—maybe it has but I’m not aware of it.”

‍Peter Noel Murray

The physicality of the print experience can’t be overlooked either. According to Murray, studies have shown that people do enjoy sitting down and having something to hold in their hands to read. It’s an area of strength from a psychological point of view that print products continue to possess over digital media.

“That level of engagement creates a greater, more positive experience,” Murray said. “Plus, from an advertiser’s point of view, it has a lot of benefits when it comes to recall of a product.”

Although Murray hasn’t worked specifically with newspapers, he has witnessed firsthand how well his print magazine clients have connected with millennials.

“This younger audience is finding something in print magazines that is emotionally satisfying,” Murray said. “I think there is a sense that millennials are turning toward truth and validity with this notion of fake news. That is why nostalgia has hit a chord with them because there’s something that is taking the experience to a deeper level with a more firm foundation.”

The recent resurgence of vinyl record sales, which reached a 25-year high in 2016, is a prime example of a positive emotional experience, Murray said.

“For audiophiles, there is a specific quality that vinyl holds that has been lost in digital reproduction,” he said. “The same thing is possible for newspapers. This idea that there is an expected experience of reading a newspaper perceived to be different yet more wonderful than going on your computer or smartphone.”

In order to ensure that Sunday experience differentiates itself from the digital realm, Mario Garcia, CEO of Garcia Media, said publishers need to believe in what he refers to as the “luxury of paper.”

“To capture that experience the content has to be special—borrow from books and magazines which always provided this more sedentary and meditative type of reading experience. Also make your Sunday product essential: prepare me for the week ahead, and remind me of the big topics of the past week that I may have missed,” Garcia said. “I must feel that reading this printed Sunday paper is going to help me, to advance me, to make me wiser—while having fun with it.”

Mario Garcia‍

When it comes to advertising, Garcia noted that thinking outside of the box remains just as critical. “Advertisers are waiting for Sunday papers to become more innovative. Try sponsored content, which can bring a world of new content of interest to readers, while allowing the newspaper to monetize via a different way of doing advertising.”

Garcia also emphasized the importance of not romanticizing print to a point where it becomes a detriment, but rather treat it is as part of the overall brand of the newspaper. The concept of a having a healthy Sunday print edition, alongside a strong digital presence during the week, comes to mind.

“I advise my clients to start giving their weekend/Sunday editions its proper identity now, for when there is no Monday-Friday print edition, a day that will come sooner or later for all, although not at the same time,” he said. “Concentrate on storytelling first, then telling stories differently in different platforms. The Sunday newspaper can be where the innovative laboratory begins to accomplish all of this.”


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