U.S. weeklies keep pace with smaller dailies in adopting paid online content

Paid content comes of ageDespite an unfriendly economy and changes in reader and advertiser behavior, most weekly publishers are bullish on the future of community newspapers. In a recent survey, 72 percent expressed optimism about the future of newspapers. And while they see some promise in digital revenue, they believe print will play an enduring role: Two-thirds don’t envision a time when they’ll no longer produce a print edition.

While weekly papers haven’t moved as quickly as the dailies into creating mobile phone and tablet apps, they have kept pace with smaller dailies in the adoption of paid online models.

The survey of publishers shows that 42 percent of non-daily newspapers now charge users for digital content. A similar study last April showed that 46 percent of publishers of dailies under 25,000 circulation require payment for at least some of their online content. Of weekly newspapers that don’t now charge, one quarter of their publishers say they plan to launch a paid program in the next 12 months; another 48 percent say they may begin charging after that.

The extensive survey of publishers was paid for by the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association and the Missouri School of Journalism’s Houston Harte Chair. Using the database of non-daily newspapers provided by the National Newspaper Association, more than 400 in-depth telephone interviews were conducted in October by the Center for Advanced Social Research, the research arm of MU’s Reynolds Journalism Institute. The survey had an 85 percent response rate.

Key findings from the study

  • A brighter future: 72 percent of weekly publishers are optimistic about the future of newspapers.
  • Print will endure: Two-thirds don't envision a time when they will no longer produce a print edition.
  • Weeklies charging online: 42 percent are now charging for online access; in line with dailies (43 percent).
  • Mobile and tablets: Less than one in 10 have a mobile phone app; just 7 percent have a tablet app.
  • Revenue streams shifting: Although 80 percent of weeklies now garner less than 10 percent of revenue from digital sources, in three years 41 percent of publishers say digital will be greater than 10 percent.
  • Multi-tasking sales staffs: The advertising staffs of 7 of 10 weeklies sell both print and digital products.
  • More training needed: 63 percent of publishers say more digital training would help their representatives achieve growth in digital ad sales.

Positive attitudes

Economic challenges and changes in advertiser and consumer habits haven’t shaken the faith of most weekly publishers. Nearly three in four — 72 percent — express optimism about the future of the industry. Another 21 percent are neutral; only 7 percent say they were not optimistic.

Like their daily counterparts, publishers of non-dailies envision a strong shift in the makeup of their papers’ revenue streams from print to digital. At present, 80 percent say less than 10 percent of their revenue is attributable to digital. In three years, only 41 percent believe digital will make up less than 10 percent of total revenue.

Forty-two percent believe their digital stream will range between 10 and 24 percent in three years; at present only 18 percent say digital revenue falls in that range. And 17 percent of publishers envision digital revenue in three years exceeding 25 percent of total revenue — only 2 percent say they’re in that range today.

All the redistribution of revenue will come at the expense of print, publishers say. They see little change in the relative contribution of other revenue components, including outside printing and niche products.

Mobile and tablet efforts

Weeklies trail dailies in development of mobile phone and tablet products. While 28 percent of non-daily publishers said they offered a mobile-optimized website, less than 1 in 10 — 7 percent — now have a native app for any kind of mobile phone. And only 3 percent offer a tablet app of any kind.

Of those organizations that don’t now have a mobile phone app, 28 percent plan to create one in the coming 12 months, and 37 percent of them plan to charge for it. In the coming 12 months, 26 percent of those newspapers without a tablet app plan to create one; 56 percent of them plan to charge for it.

E-edition: Indicator of digital confidence

The presence of e-editions among weeklies correlated with a number of factors indicating digital innovation or confidence.

Of those non-dailies with e-editions:

  • 100 percent charge users for online content
  • 11 percent currently have a mobile phone app, compared to 7 percent of all respondents
  • 10 percent have a tablet app, compared to 3 percent of all respondents.
  • 82 percent believe the audience will pay for online content, compared to 64 percent from all respondents.
  • 76 percent feel optimistic about the future of the newspaper industry, as opposed to 72.5 percent of all respondents.

External forces at play

The absence of ubiquitous broadband internet access across weekly markets and the competition for readers and advertisers are behind some of the decisions to implement paid content and mobile platforms and products.

Thirty-six percent of weekly publishers say their market is not saturated with broadband internet coverage. Another 33 percent say their markets are saturated; while 31 percent are neutral.

Publishers see greater competition in their markets for ad dollars than for news coverage. Only 24 percent say they’re in a competitive news market. But the perception of competition for advertising is a different story: 47 percent of publishers say they’re in competitive advertising markets. One quarter say their markets are not competitive for advertising; another 28 percent are neutral.

Forging ahead with paid content

The non-daily papers — nearly all of them weekly or twice-weekly community papers — were undaunted by technical challenges: Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) implemented their pay-for-content mechanisms themselves, while the remainder joined a syndicate or vendor-created network.

Until the widespread advent of paid content models, most dailies put the entire local contents of their print edition on their websites for free, often adding material such as blogs, slideshows and video. But many weeklies have gone a different route, being loath to post all local content online for

free. In part to protect print editions, 26 percent of all weeklies have offered less on the web, using their sites to promote or tease local content, or simply list information about how to contact the paper. An equal proportion offers a replica edition; 48 percent offer more than their print edition.

Nearly half — 47 percent — of the weeklies bundle free access to their web editions with print subscriptions. One quarter offer a metered approach.

In all, 36 percent of non-daily publishers believe revenue from their paid content models will account for up to 20 percent of digital revenue; 15 percent believe it will represent more than 20 percent. About half thought it would have a negligible effect.

While most publishers expect their paid content model to have no effect on print circulation, 7 percent think it will increase circulation and 24 percent think it will slow or stop circulation declines.

E-editions, or PDF replicas of the print edition that can be emailed to customers, play an important role in the digital portfolio of weeklies. One in six — 17 percent —offer e-editions; all are charging for them.

Ninety-five percent of weeklies with more than 5,000 circulation have websites, compared to 77 percent of those with less than 5,000 circulation.

Digital sales, ad production and training

In nearly 4 of 5 weeklies, sales representatives sell a full portfolio of print and digital products. One-fifth of the newspapers have at least one sales staffer who specializes in one or the other. In nearly half the organizations — 43 percent — sales reps also are responsible for ad creation and production. Circulation size was not a significant factor.

However, only one-third of publishers of newspapers in which sales staffs sell both print and digital believe their representatives can sell digital products as well as print. More than two-thirds — 68 percent — believe specific training in selling digital products would make a significant difference in sales results.

Publishers also feel journalists need more ongoing training in digital news coverage and production. Forty-seven percent say their newsrooms need ongoing training. And 44 percent cite the need for ongoing training in digital ad production.

About the sample

Breakdown by circulation

Less than 2,000    44%
2,000-4,999          16%
5,000-7,499          16%
7,500 and above   24%
55% in privately owned groups
44% independent non-group
1% in publicly traded groups

Average news staff size was 7.5; staff size ranged from 1 to 150


The report also includes last year's paid content survey of dailies, research summary on readers' willingness to pay, and another research summary on lessons learned modeling pricing models.

Download the full report here

Michael M. Jenner  
Professor and Houston Harte Chair in Journalism


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