FFor most of their existence, newspapers have taken the approach that they will generate and package news and entertainment offerings that would represent the needs of all readers. For the most part, that offering has served both publishers and readers quite well.
Technology has changed the rules, and this could not be truer than with television listings. Most newspapers have benefited for years by having the TV listings as a premium offering in one of the weekend newspapers. Digital TV and online listings have changed all that.
The result has been a decline in TV book readership and less advertising.
So what have newspapers done? Well mostly, they have cut the book back. Eliminating content first and then attacking even the listings themselves, leaving the book a mere shell of its former self.
The result is that, remaining readers are even less satisfied and advertisers continue to shift their spend away from the book. In some cases, newspapers have simply walked away from this reader service.
At the Toronto Star, we have been basically on the same path with our TV listings book, Starweek Magazine. It has historically served as a valued addition to the Saturday Star for readers, as well as a solid vehicle for advertisers. However, over the last few years, the book has been suffering. The changing habits of television viewers, particularly those using on-screen interactive program guides, have resulted in fewer readers telling us that they use Starweek regularly. Further, advertising revenues have significantly declined in recent years.
Over the years, we looked at different options to improve the financials of the book. The main consideration explored at those times was turning Starweek into an “opt-in” product, forcing subscribers to tell us if they wanted to continue receiving it. This would reduce the press run by about 50%. Instead, we chose to reduce costs by eliminating the rolling logs and other content from Starweek. Following that change, the circulation department received almost 10,000 complaints, including over 800 stops. We then added back some of the content, but with reader satisfaction diminished.
That was two years ago. During the recession of 2009 we were back at it again. This time we seriously considered eliminating the book. Before making such a drastic move, we conducted field research to better understand how far usage had drifted in the past two years.
The findings were interesting:
- The majority of subscribers read StarWeek at least once in the past four weeks.
- Just under 50% of subscribers read every issue of StarWeek.
- More than half of subscribers would opt-in for a free StarWeek.
- Roughly 25% of subscribers are willing to pay for StarWeek as it is.
- Even more are willing to pay for a “significantly improved” StarWeek.
- Just under 20% of subscribers are very unlikely to continue their subscription if StarWeek was no longer available.
Clearly, eliminating the book was a high-risk maneuver for us to consider, but we were also over-serving roughly half of our readers. It was also interesting to note that engaged Starweek readers were willing to actually pay to keep their book, even pay more for an improved offering.
We developed three versions of the book to take to focus groups to better understand just what a “better” book might actually mean. The results of the focus groups were quite enlightening:
- Weekly Starweek readers are highly engaged with the product and find great utility in the listings. It is used and depended upon as a vital planning and viewing tool on a regular basis.
- The addition of prime time rolling logs (detailed show listings by half-hour time blocks) was welcomed by most.
- A daily editorial feature giving “best bets” type information was considered valuable.
- A notable number of attendees valued the revived “Chef’s Showcase” feature, and many liked puzzles.
- Other editorial content appeared to be largely unvalued by most attendees – nice to have, but certainly not necessary and unlikely to be coveted.
Both the market research and the focus groups led us to consider an opt-in book but with a surcharge. We also concluded we could increase the single copy cost of our Saturday newspaper but both the surcharge and the increased Saturday single copy price required an investment in the book, an investment – not further cuts but adds back to content.
So what did we do:
First, greatly expanded our television listings, adding more detailed descriptions of daily prime time programs and introducing celebrity articles and puzzles that will increase the ways in which readers can use and enjoy Starweek.
Second, starting in a few weeks, Starweek will no longer automatically be delivered to readers’ doors with their Saturday Star unless they tell us specifically that they want it.
Third, when they opt-in, they will receive the expanded Starweek for an additional 50 cents a week with their Saturday paper.
Fourth, Starweek will still be included in all single copies sold in stores and newspaper boxes, but the cost will rise to $2.50 from $2.00 in the Greater Toronto Area.
The content changes include:
- Greatly expanded television listings including two full pages of prime time listings for every day of the week, with more detailed descriptions of episodes of popular programs.
- Doubled our TV movie listings to four pages, with enhanced movie descriptions and more photos from featured movies.
- Enhanced the full page “Worth Watching” feature, which will now include details of new shows each week, including drama series and documentaries.
- Introduced a “Best Bets” feature for each day of the week, with a description of episodes of the most popular current shows, such as Flashpoint and CSI.
- Launched a new “Chef’s Showcase,” which each week will spotlight a different local chef and the recipe of their favourite dish.
- Added more celebrity content, including a second featured cover story, primarily focusing on Canadian stars, as well as more news about television personalities.
- Created a full page for TV puzzles and games that will include the current celebrity crossword, plus a new television Word Search and a TV Jumble.
Check out how readers can sign up at a special website, www.SayYesToStarweek.com.
This is a bold effort and not without risk. But our business model calls for this to generate new revenues and improve our financials considerably. In a time when profits are pressured, new twists on old ideas are necessary. There are few sure bets in the newspaper business these days, so innovation, creativity and risk-taking must become the norm and not the exception. Finding ways to generate new revenues from our existing print readers seems like an obvious place to start.
To be fair, neither the opt-in model or the opt-in and pay model are Toronto Star innovations. The Orange County Register was among the first to go opt-in with their TV book product, and the Arizona Republic was early to venture into an opt-in paid product. We may be the first to go opt-in pay at 50 cents along with a single-copy price increase at the same time. It’s a risky bet but we need aggressive moves during difficult times.
Time will tell if this bet pays off, but most certainly the learnings will be invaluable.