Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Bit Less Sun in Naperville

The Sun-Times Media Group -- probably America's most buffeted newspaper chain -- announced last week that its papers in Aurora and Joliet, Ill., would go from seven to six days, and that the Naperville Sun would return to three after a few years as a daily. Those who see the end of newspapers can of course see this as another nail in the coffin. But don't overread it.

Naperville -- a booming and affluent Chicago suburb -- had its paper taken daily right before the Newspaper Holocaust and the economic crash. In good times, publishers have always seen money going to their metropolitan competitors, and tried to lure it away with a new daily. Sometimes they succeed. Often they do not. In the 1920s boom, dailies were started on Philadelphia's Main Line and in the Oranges outside Newark. The 1930s sent them back to weekly status.

A paper in Mount Kisco, N.Y., was cranked up to daily status in the 1970s and cranked back in about a year. The same happened recently in Plainfield, Ind. In the 1960s there were briefly dailies in Garden Grove and Huntington Beach, Calif. There were two attempts in Castle Rock, outside Denver. A publisher finds out pretty quickly whether there's a market for daily readership and whether she can lure ads away from competitors. So the change in Naperville doesn't mean much except to quote from the Chicago Tribune's article:

"These moves are driven by reasons related to economics and efficiencies, (chief executive Jeremy) Halbreich said. But he also said that, in Naperville, the company had received comments from local officials, readers and advertisers favoring a return to a three-day schedule for the Sun."

And that's also often the case. You might think that local officials would love having their name in the paper every day. But readers (and officials) who aren't total news junkies may find it easier to just catch up with what's happening a couple of times a week, instead of having to pay attention every day. Plus, readers of small-town papers often like the "villagey" feeling of a less-than-daily. People live in places like Naperville because they don't want to live in Chicago. They may not want it to feel more urban -- with a daily newspaper and all. It's not news that's going to be on the local television.

With two or three times a week, they can "catch up" on all the local news without having to look for it every day. It's a lot easier to get the big national and foreign stories online than it is most local news -- there are so many sources. Take that away need away from dailies and increasing numbers of print readers may say, sure, I want a print paper -- just a couple times a week.

The other advantage is that a daily schedule makes people think they "have" to read it that day or it's obsolete. My wife will let our three dailies pile up on the counter, and then read three days' worth on the weekends. But I'd say most people's feeling is, "God, here's another one and I didn't even get to yesterday's! Now I've got to throw that old one out unread!" You don't, but with a couple of days between publication, you have more time to get to it. In the 1980s people told us that they felt oppressed by unread newspapers. We told them they should rearrange their lives to have more time to read us. They didn't. This may be the compromise.

As for the Saturday cuts in the other two papers, while those are clearly economic, it's important to remember that many newspapers were not seven days until the classified-and-insert boom started in the 1970s, and the majority of papers never were (despite our beliefs, readers of most newspapers have always been willing to go a day or two without a paper). In 1966, Illinois had (I might be off by one in any category) 14 seven-day papers, 60 six-day papers, and 7 five-day papers. In 1997, it had 25 seven-day papers, 30 six-day papers, and 13 five-day papers. (Yes, this is Before the Internet, a drop from 81 to 68 daily papers. It's always been about television.) In 1966, 74 percent of dailies came out on six days and 17 percent seven; in 1996, 44 percent were six days and another 44 percent were seven. Now Aurora and Joliet were in the seven-day category until now, and in 1966 some of the six-day papers were part of morning/evening combos with one Sunday paper, and some people bought their local daily and then the Chicago Tribune on Sunday. But it's so much easier to staff a six-day operation and then put more strength into the Sunday paper instead of frittering it away on a largely unread Saturday, as long as you post Friday-night high school sports online.

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