The Sunday-Only Newspaper Problem

A strange pricing trend has emerged as a number of high-profile newspapers have started charging for access to their web sites. Specifically, newspapers are charging less for Sunday paper delivery and unlimited web access than they charge for web access on its own. For example, the Boston Globe charges $3.50/week for Sunday-only delivery and web access, but $3.98/week for web access alone. The New York Times has a similar model, and the Washington Post is apparently considering it as well. This pricing is the opposite of what you’d normally expect: you pay more to get more. Why are newspapers essentially paying people to take their Sunday editions?

The bread and butter of a newspaper is print advertising. A Pew Research Center report on the state of the news media calculated that newspapers brought in $19.1 billion in print advertising revenue, and only $3.3 billion in online ad revenue. Moreover, online ad sales aren’t growing fast enough to offset the loss in print ads:

Print advertising losses continue to far exceed digital ad gains. For 2012, the ratio was about 16 print dollars lost for every digital dollar gained—even worse than the 10 to 1 ratio in 2011.

Notably, the Pew report also documents an increase in Sunday, subcriptions:

Sunday circulation has risen thanks to more new rules for counting audience that includes more digital products and the industry’s emphasis on growing sales of Sunday issues, which are the best-read and most profitable papers of the week.

It seems that efforts by newspapers to increase their Sunday paper circulation are succeeding. In order to prop up print circulation numbers, newspapers are subsidizing Sunday-only subscriptions. By including web access with a Sunday-only delivery, papers can encourage people to buy a print subscription, even if all they really want to do is read online.

What should we think of all this? Well, firstly, that newspapers are going to have to deal with the death of their print editions sooner or later. These subsidies will last a while, but it’s pretty easy to see the writing on the wall.

As a consumer, I have just one request: Don’t make me pay more to avoid getting something I don’t want. I don’t want a print edition of the Sunday paper. Honestly, I’ll never look at it. The best-case scenario would be to charge less for web-only access than for a Sunday edition, but based on the data I’m pretty sure that’s not in the cards. But there’s another option that should help everyone out: Give readers the option to buy that Sunday-only subscription, use the online access, and donate the actual printed Sunday paper to a school, library, or charity. People like me wouldn’t have their houses cluttered by unwanted paper, needy people get access to quality news coverage, and the newsapaper gets to keep its print subscriptions up. Newspapers, make it happen and I’ll gladly subscribe!