Mark Medici, then-vice president of audience for the Dallas Morning News, triggered a brief media frenzy in October when he said at a conference that within three years the Morning News wouldn't be publishing seven days a week. Though the paper quickly backed away from his remark, with Publisher Jim Moroney asserting that the Belo-owned paper has no intention of cutting back, the flap raised the question of whether daily newspapers will soon cease to be daily.
The rationale is that eliminating editions that bring in little ad revenue will allow papers to save on production and distribution costs, stave off additional cutbacks in the newsroom and bolster the bottom line in a challenging environment for newspapers.
The struggling Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, partners in one of the industry's few remaining joint operating agreements, attracted widespread attention in December 2008 when they announced that they were cutting back home delivery to three days a week. Slimmed-down versions of the paper are available at newsstands on the other days.
Three years later, Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Gannett-owned Free Press, says he's happy with the new approach. "Basically, what's happened since then is that we have been pretty successful," Anger says. "We have, I believe, outperformed industry trends in terms of circulation, and our Web traffic has gone up."
Anger hastens to add that less-than-daily might not be the answer for everybody. "Each market is different," he says. "It would not be appropriate at this time for some markets in the country, but it was appropriate for us. And I'm surprised that it hasn't been adopted elsewhere in markets that have similar situations that we have."
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, says scaling back publication schedules has been talked about for years, even before the worst of the industry's advertising declines and newsroom layoffs.
"That said, it has not happened very often, and it has tended to be in situations, Detroit being an excellent example, where their back's really up against the wall and the current way of operating is losing money," Edmonds says.
But some papers have taken the plunge. In September, the Philadelphia Daily News announced that it was scrapping its scrawny Saturday edition. Instead, the Daily News is producing a weekly called SportsWeek to appeal to sports-crazed Philadelphians.
Starting February 2, four Michigan newspapers — the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette and Jackson Citizen Patriot — will drop home delivery to three days a week. On the other days, the papers will be available at newsstands as well as online.
In July 2009, the Michigan's Ann Arbor News, which launched in 1835, announced that it was ceasing daily publication and would emphasize distributing news on AnnArbor.com. The print paper still comes out two days a week.
A number of papers nationwide, mostly in smaller markets, have dropped their Monday editions in the past year or so, says Randy Bennett, senior vice president of business development at the Newspaper Association of America. Monday has traditionally been a weak day for advertising.
"I don't see this as a sort of general trend over the next 18 months for a whole slew of newspapers, but I think it's a strategy that many newspapers are looking at going forward as digital penetration grows," Bennett says.
But the situation is much different in larger markets, says NAA Vice President of Audience Development John Murray. "It's really two different situations," he says. "On the smaller markets, there's less risk in making that decision, because there's less competition. The ability for people to go elsewhere to get that content is limited."
For Poynter faculty member Bill Mitchell, a former Detroit Free Press reporter and editor, the risk of dropping days is that it disrupts the reader's daily habit of news consumption. For instance, his relatives who live in Detroit are avid tech users, with a household that includes an iMac, iPad, laptops and smartphones of all kinds. But even though they are set up to access digital news, they are used to reading the print edition of the Free Press.
"In this interim period, unless you're forced to it by very stark economic realities, I don't think it's an especially attractive solution because of the daily habit," Mitchell says. "That's critical. I think most people rely on getting it how they've always gotten it. Certainly you've got people who prefer consuming it digitally, but I think it's still a minority."
For some news organizations, even a minor change in the publication schedule can seem like an admission of defeat in the digital era. "Being daily keeps you in front of people every day," Edmonds says. "As soon as you say you don't really need it every day, then they say maybe I don't need it at all. There's a question of does it set the wrong tone."
Many media savants agree that at some point, regardless of how long editors and publishers can stem the bleeding caused by digital transformation, printed papers will cease to exist in their current form. "The idea that print could contract or, in some cases, be eliminated, it's not a theoretical question anymore," says Alan Mutter, a media consultant and former editor known for his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur.
When Medici's comment about the future of the Morning News stirred the pot, Moroney moved quickly to quiet things down, saying Medici doesn't recall making the comment and that there had been either a "misstatement or a misunderstanding." (In November, Medici left the paper to become vice president of audience and digital strategy at the Austin American-Statesman.)
"We as a company have never reached a conclusion that there is a better business model for us in anything less than seven days a week," Moroney says. "We have far from given up on the print model. We're not modeling how to diminish it."
The Morning News is still focused on revitalizing its print business and sustaining a seven-day-a-week engagement with print customers, he says. The paper's circulation has grown every year since 2008, with a current total Sunday circulation of 362,134. The paper has also garnered close to $75 million in additional circulation revenue each year, he says, after increasing its subscription price almost 100 percent in 2007, from $17 a month to about $33.
"I don't know that we're that close to having to deal with this issue in terms of going down to less than seven days a week. I still think the seven-day-a-week business can be sustainable for another decade," Moroney says.
"We're just not spending our time trying to model the five-day or three-day or one-day look. We don't think it needs to be cut back anytime soon."
The thinking is that if you have a business that is making money but is not going to grow, you keep it as strong as you can for as long as you can. "I think if your print product is still profitable and if you are able to make cuts without damaging the product, then you wouldn't necessarily be in a big hurry to change it," Edmonds says.
While both Mitchell and Moroney continue to advocate dailies as we know them, Mitchell acknowledges the apparent inevitability of such a change in the industry, and Moroney's confidence in the daily product could only extend to the next 10 years.
"What I do know is continuing to condense and cut is not going to get us to the future," Anger says. "It can buy you some time, but at some point any news organization gets to the point where you're not doing the job well enough anymore. And if you're not doing the job well enough anymore, that's going to affect your business model."
Part of the success in Detroit, Anger thinks, comes from a dialogue with readers. Before the papers made the switch, the company talked with hundreds of consumers about their news consumption and how readers adapt if a certain source of information is no longer available. They also took the time to explain to readers the new course of action and why it was necessary.
"What we have done is we've been able to preserve newsroom resources," Anger says. "This has been a very successful step for us."
Ken Paulson, president of the American Society of News Editors, used to think that newspapers would exist only as long as the baby boomers were around. But then along came the tablet. And that changed everything.
"Newspapers will never die," Paulson says. "They will just move to a new address."
The idea of a newspaper publishing in print only a couple days a week and distributing through tablets on the others isn't so terrible, Paulson says. In fact, it allows news organizations to make sure they are providing substantive papers on the days they do deliver, instead of the thinner and thinner papers that are dropping daily on many doorsteps today.
"If the end result is on thin days we have electronic delivery and other days much more substantive newspapers with more heft, everyone wins," says Paulson, president and CEO of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville. "I think consumers would be happier with the bigger size and depth a couple days a week."