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Newspapers fighting to survive - disrupting habits by dropping home delivery days...

As a lover of language, journalism and writing - and yes, as one of those anachronistic subscribers to not one, but two daily newspapers, I've watched with great interest the continued devolution of the newspaper industry. You all know it... the stories are, of course, in the newspapers and online almost every day these days. We're right in the midst of a great chaotic change in media consumption, as Clay Shirky recent wrote in his great essay

Today, though, the changes to the industry started to hit home for me personally. In the editorial page for the New Hampshire Union Leader, publisher Joe McQuaid laid out the (overall comparatively good) situation for the Union Leader, the tough challenges of providing local coverage, and then dropped in the change:

We are taking several steps to deal with it, the most noticeable of which will occur in mid-April. At that time, for areas outside Greater Manchester, we will discontinue Saturday distribution and begin publishing a combined Friday/Saturday Edition. It will contain all of Friday's features plus key sections and features from Saturday's current paper. It will be delivered to state-area subscribers on Friday and be available at retail outlets on Friday and Saturday.

For those who don't know New Hampshire, Keene is very definitely an "area outside Greater Manchester". We're about 1.25 hours to the west of Manchester down in the southwest corner of N.H. over by Vermont and Massachusetts.

No Saturday morning Union Leader for us.

Now as it happens, this isn't really a particularly big deal for my wife and I. The primary reason we get the Union Leader is because it is the only newspaper with daily morning delivery during the week. The Keene Sentinel, the other daily newspaper we get (and one of the oldest in the country still using the same name), is published in the afternoon during the week. However, both newspapers get delivered on Saturday morning. And in truth, both are fairly thin on Saturdays and, with the way the newspapers increasingly print wire stories, etc., they both tend to have a fair amount of duplicate content.

So this change is really no big deal. We'll just read the Sentinel on Saturdays. We really mostly care about the local news anyway (and the comics).

But I have to wonder about those in other areas of N.H. that don't have the duplicate paper. Will this accelerate some people finding (online) alternatives? Perhaps not... after all, it is only one day of service dropped.

Consider, instead, Detroit, where the Detroit Times and Detroit Free Press are reducing home delivery to Thursday, Fridays and Sundays. They are cutting four days of delivery. Which led me to completely agree with this quote (my emphasis added):

"They are accelerating greatly the print-to-digital transformation, and they are taking a great chance there," said Ken Doctor, media analyst with Outsell Inc.

The biggest risk is in breaking readers' newspaper habits, he said. If readers realize they can get by without a newspaper at the doorstep four days of the week, they might conclude they don't need it delivered on the other three days. Circulation could drop, and with it, ad revenue.

I think that is a serious gamble and risk on the part of the Detroit papers. Now, maybe, as the story seems to indicate, this is really a last desperate gamble to keep the papers afloat - but I agree with the analyst that this is probably only going to accelerate the ongoing transformation. Perhaps it's a step that will keep these two papers financially going in the short-term, but in the long-term I can't see how it will do anything but hasten the demise.

You are breaking readers' habits.

A personal story - the reason why we have two newspaper subscriptions is because of our habits. I have been a daily newspaper reader for decades. In every place my wife and I have lived we have subscribed to a daily morning paper. Before my daughter, I always snapped wide awake at 6:00 am pretty much every single morning of my life. My daughter got the early-bird gene but she ratchets that back to 5:00am or 5:30am and over the years my body clock has migrated to that as well. We therefore have tons of time in the morning before work and school start. So we like a morning paper. Great to read before the day begins.

When we moved to Keene last summer, we started out subscribing to the Keene Sentinel, but in comes in the late afternoon, usually around 4:00pm or so. We tried... but it broke our habit and try as we could we just didn't find we ourselves adapting. We even tried reading the previous day's Sentinel the next morning... but that just didn't work. So we sucked it up and subscribed to the Union Leader primarily to get a morning paper. We wound up keeping the Sentinel as we enjoyed getting all the local news that didn't wind up in the state-wide Union Leader.

Because of a habit, we subscribed to a paper. Break that habit, and we'll stop.

If the Union Leader were some day to drop to only doing home delivery three days a week, I can say with probably 99% certainty that we would drop our subscription for those remaining 3 days. It's a daily habit... a pattern... and if that habit can't be fulfilled, what's the point?

I would expect the Detroit papers will be finding this out...

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