From AJR,   December 1996

In This Case, Less May Be Best   

Do readers prefer newspapers with narrower pages?

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

Comes now W. Dean Singleton, chief executive of MediaNews Group (owner of the Denver Post and other papers), to tell me I am wrong in opposing reduction of the typical newspaper's newsprint web width from 55 to 50 inches.

I had taken the newspaper industry to task in an earlier column (November 1995) for considering the reduction to save 7 to 9 percent in newsprint costs. The result, I argued, would be to give readers and advertisers less at a time when holding on to readers and advertisers was the number one problem facing newspapers.

Singleton, who has converted all of his company's newspapers to a 50-inch web, tells me I am guilty of thinking "like an old newspaperman" (I can't deny the description). "This is more than an expense cut," he writes in a letter to me. "It is a vehicle to build readership among the fast-moving readers of the 21st century."

Before presenting his arguments, I will recap briefly what a web-width reduction means. The roll of newsprint that runs through the press at most newspapers is 55 inches wide. Two newspaper pages, spread flat, are printed side-by-side, then cut apart and folded, to produce a single page 13.75 inches wide. If the newsprint roll is reduced to 50 inches, the resulting single pages are 12.5 inches wide. As recently as the early 1980s, most newspaper pages were 15 inches wide, before an earlier web reduction to counter rising newsprint costs.

If all newspapers went to 50 inches (the Washington Post will when it gets new presses next year, and the Toronto Star changed some time ago), it will mean that, in a little over 10 years, the newspaper pages sold to readers and advertisers will have been reduced by nearly 17 percent. It has always been my conviction that in the newspaper business, unlike in architecture, less is less.

Not necessarily, says Singleton. His newspapers use special photographic lenses to squeeze the same amount of information and news into a smaller space. This causes some distortions (the letter "o" becomes egg-shaped, for example), but Singleton says the differences are barely perceptible and often unnoticed by readers and advertisers.

ýnd not all the newsprint cost savings have to fall to the profit line. At the Denver Post, the web reduction will save $7 million annually, Singleton says, and almost all of that will be spent on larger newsholes for local, sports and business news to help the Post in its intense battle with the Rocky Mountain News. At his company's 22 other dailies, about half the savings will be spent on product improvement.

Now if all publishers used savings from web-width reductions to increase, rather than decrease, what is given to readers, I would be forced to admit the result would be positive (my concerns about advertisers' reactions, however, would remain). But I fear the industry's penchant for pocketing cost savings will mean many publishers will not follow MediaNews Group's example.

But the main point, says Singleton, is that readers actually prefer the smaller pages. He points to circulation increases at his newspapers following the web-width reductions as clear evidence.

MediaNews Group conducted extensive surveys of both subscribers and non-subscribers in the Denver market before making the change. Those surveyed received the narrower newspapers and then were queried about their reactions. Fifty-two percent of Post subscribers preferred the narrower paper and 30 percent had no preference, 13 percent preferred the wider paper and 5 percent could not tell the difference. (Similar results were found in surveys conducted by the Toronto Star and the Washington Post.)

What was even more persuasive to the Denver Post was that 39 percent of non-subscribers said they would be "very" likely or "somewhat" likely to switch from the Rocky Mountain News to the Post if the smaller size were adopted.

Singleton is convinced, and is determined to convince me, that the narrower pages offer a "convenient way to present today's news in a 21st century format," as he put it in a recent speech. A narrower newspaper is easier to handle and read and is more inviting to non-readers and young readers, important targets for any newspaper, he said.

I am not convinced by everything he says, but he is right in asserting the real issue for newspapers is content. "The more of our resources that we put into newsprint," he says, "the less we have for our newsrooms and other departments."

Although newsprint prices have retreated from the $750 per ton price at the end of last year (at this writing the price is below $500 a ton), prices are sure to go back up again at some point.

If anything, rising worldwide demand and its fluctuations could make the price peaks and valleys even more pronounced. Singleton's reaction to this is that newspapers "must learn to use less newsprint in the long term." But that will be a good strategy only if content is not diminished. l