Black Thursday


There's little mystery about what the nation's newspaper publishers were thankful for on Thursday: a bountiful harvest of holiday advertising. And how did many papers - from the Washington Post in the East, to the Bakersfield Californian out West - celebrate their good fortune? By raising the cover price.

Atop the Californian's front page was a gaudy photo display of ads that appeared inside the Thursday paper. In a message to readers that seemed capable of making them gag on their turkey dinners, the paper's vice president for content, Olivia Garcia, wrote: "One of The Bakersfield Californian's holiday traditions is to deliver a newspaper that is filled with great local content and plenty of inserts from our advertisers that promote the best deals in town."

After boasting that the Thursday paper included "more than 40 inserts," Garcia disclosed, "We've also increased the cost of today's paper from 75 cents to $1.50, but we feel the bargain you'll get from the specials inside is definitely worth the extra charge. Happy Thanksgiving."

If the Internet doesn't kill newspapers, upside down marketing like this just might. The basic premise of newspaper economics is that circulation revenue covers the shortfall in advertising revenue. Theoretically, if publishers could sell enough ads they'd give the paper away free, or close to free, and in doing so attract even more ad dollars.

That may be an over simplification - especially at a time when digital technology and shifts among reader preferences are challenging the industry's best thinkers. But whatever ails the newspaper business, doubling the price on Thanksgiving is surely not the answer.

Average weekday circulation for the nation's daily papers dropped a staggering 11 percent in the six months ending in September, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Yet, sales of ad-heavy Thanksgiving editions traditionally soar despite the fact that many newsstands are closed.

Readers must have felt quite a jolt upon discovering that their Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kansas City Star were priced at $2. Customers in Dallas must have felt truly blessed to find that Thursday's Morning News had a "Special Price" of $3.

When it comes to cover price, publishers are often stuck with only two options: the daily price and the Sunday price. That's because most newspaper vending machines have only two settings, and the process of reconfiguring is too time consuming for a one-day price change.

As a result, smaller papers like The Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts, which may have preferred to go from 60 cents to, say, a dollar on Thanksgiving, jumped all the way to the $1.75 Sunday price. For the money, Eagle readers got only 36 pages of "news" content, plus 28 paid advertising inserts. Adding insult to price tag, Thursday's Eagle was printed almost six hours earlier than usual, eliminating all evening sports coverage.

The Eagle's parent company, MediaNews, charged $1.50 on Thursday for its flagship paper, The Denver Post. The company's circulation chief, Stephen Hesse, told Bloomberg News, “You lose some readers because of the price, but that more than makes up for itself in revenue.” He added, “There’s real value in that paper because it has advertising inserts for the entire shopping season.”

Thinking like that could be called greedy – particularly on a national day of thanks. But better terms might be desperate and shortsighted.

Whatever the fate of the newspaper industry in the face of new Internet challenges, the only reasonable explanations for higher prices are improved news content and/or unavoidable increases in the cost of production and distribution. Selling more advertising is not a reasonable excuse for doubling the price.

Most readers - especially those who eagerly sought bargains in the Thanksgiving circulars - were probably quick to figure that out.

© Peter Funt.

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