In response to the COVID-19 squeeze, the Tampa Bay Times decided to reduce its print frequency on March 22, implementing the change on April 7. Instead of a seven-day week, the company now prints on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“When we made the decision to do it, I said, ‘We’re either going to be idiots or innovators,’” Joe DeLuca, executive vice president and general manager at Tampa Bay Times, told INMA.
Reducing print frequency was already on the horizon due to readership and traditional advertising trends. In a pre-COVID version of its rolling five-year plan, the Times had planned to address print frequency in 2024 while growing digital events, subscriptions, and its ad agency to ease the financial transition.
Suddenly, display advertising revenue fell by 50% overnight and the Tampa Bay Times lost that runway. DeLuca said the company knew it had to act fast to avoid real trouble six weeks down the line. Going directly into a two-day printing schedule significantly decreased the costs of newsprint and delivery. “The cost implementations, what we were able to save, helped us save the company,” he said.
E-papers as a gateway drug
Tampa Bay Times has not lost any ad revenue due to the frequency change. Keeping a mid-week print day allows the company to capture grocery and entertainment-related revenue, and, more importantly, many advertisers have been transferred to the e-paper.
“We’ve always viewed the e-paper as the gateway drug to digital,” DeLuca said.
Beyond transitioning ad partners to the new print schedule, communicating the change to readers was a crucial, delicate piece of the puzzle. Tampa Bay Times received great understanding and empathy from readers with the announcement. People were concerned about the company, DeLuca said: “We knew it was giving us a slight honeymoon.”
During this honeymoon, Tampa Bay Times focused on improving digital engagement of its print readership. Every print subscriber already had digital access, but many had not even created an account. As those customers came up for renewal, they would object to paying for two days of print at the same rate they paid for seven, despite still having digital access to seven days of content.
The company focused on proactively engaging those customers, encouraging them to log in and use the digital product, through extensive campaigns: sending e-mail and regular mailings, calling current customers to walk them through account creation, and print campaigns in the Wednesday and Sunday editions.
After extensive work with and planning for customer engagement, Tampa Bay Times discovered it has three categories of subscribers:
- The digital-only group, roughly 22,000 customers, has good retention. This group has grown by 30% since the start of the pandemic, and the company sees a path to reaching 50,000 to 60,000 digital-only subscribers.
- Former print readers the company is unable to engage. These customers are still out there, only reading the Wednesday and Sunday print editions. Before the pandemic, there were 65,000 customers in this group, but now there are 35,000.
- The third group falls in the middle and has the highest retention rate. About 115,000 customers are engaged digitally, accessing content through the Web site or e-paper, and still read print.
Defining each of the three groups has helped the company focus on more targeted strategies and creates a more clear path to success, DeLuca added: “It’s not easy, but it’s straightforward.”
When DeLuca said the e-paper is the gateway to digital for advertisers, he said this applies to subscribers as well. Tampa Bay Times had 12,000 subscribers reading the e-paper daily before the pandemic. Now, 85,000 customers use it, with a daily average of 45,000. That dips to about 25,000 on Wednesdays and Sundays.
“That tells you that some of these print readers on non-print days have substituted the e-paper,” DeLuca said.
The company’s app has been popular as well. There are thousands of reviews, many stating surprise at how much they enjoy using it.
Despite the upheaval, the company’s move was a step in the right direction, DeLuca said: “You have got to build your business for the new world,” he said, “And not try to maintain as much as you can. … We’re not going back there.”
Adjusting for revenue loss
Beyond higher churn with its long-term print customers, Tampa Bay Times has experienced other revenue losses due to the print frequency shift. The company lost five days of single-copy revenue and there was s no way to keep that revenue or get it back, DeLuca said. The company also lost the rate advantage it had with print-centric subscribers because people view it as getting two days of content — not seven.
Overall, DeLuca said the company has lost about 12% of circulation revenue over what it was trending before. Tampa Bay Times also lost some commercial alternate delivery revenue now that it is no longer able to deliver for national daily brands. But it has retained delivery for weekly doorfront direct packages of magazines.
Moving forward, DeLuca said he thinks the company will eventually move to printing on Sundays only. For now, though, the mid-week edition is very profitable: “Our Wednesday paper right now looks like a Sunday paper.”
Other publishers contemplating a similar move should take time to identify and build alternate streams of revenue, DeLuca said. They should also be proactive in their efforts to build digital engagement before changing print frequency. Get e-mails, and make sure customers are registered. These actions would have prepared Tampa Bay Times immensely, he said: “We ended up playing with live ammunition.”
Overall, DeLuca said he thinks the move was the right one. Advertisers that have changed their own businesses in reaction to COVID-19 are not going to return, and trends were heading in the same direction. The pandemic just accelerated the momentum. “All in all, it’s given us a boost into the future of our business,” DeLuca said. “We’ve taken some bold steps that I don’t think we would have taken yet.”
This case study originally appeared in the INMA report, The Economics and Emotion of Reducing Print Days.