As traffic plunges, publisher UT sees Sunday paper only in its “digital future”

Current “web exclusives” for new Union-Tribune subscribers – but rates only guaranteed for eight weeks.

Days after his newspaper posted another large drop in daily circulation – to an average of 66,192 copies – publisher Jeff Light said Thursday that The San Diego Union-Tribune would only publish a day once a week .

He wouldn’t say when.

Release of Union-Tribune printouts for the year ending September 19, 2021, as reported to the US Postal Service

“Our plan for the Union-Tribune, like all major newspapers, calls for a digital future, with Sunday remaining in print,” he said by email on Thursday. “We have a solid business plan for the future of the company that we put in place in 2017, and we have achieved all of our goals.”

As it did last year – when the average circulation fell from 104,377 to 87,834 – Light said UT was a “strong, profitable business.”

But if the average annual decline of 14.4% over the past five years is not reversed, printed UT is on track to sell 56,661 dailies in 2022, 48,502 in 2023, 41,518 in 2024, 35,540 in 2025 and a paltry 30,422 in 2026 – all in a county with around 1.13 million households.

Light noted that the Postal Service’s required annual report on print circulation, which appeared in Monday’s UT, offered only a partial glimpse into the health of a 153-year-old company with a newsroom of 100. people.

“Printing is declining as digital develops,” he said. He warned not to take too much stock of the digital figures kept by the Alliance for Audited Media (successor to the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

Half-yearly report for March 2021 on the Union-Tribune by Alliance for Audited Media. (PDF)

“The numeric numbers in AAM reports in general are messy because everyone seems to fill them in differently…. Without taking issue with the AAM or the people who fill out these reports, I would just say that this is not the place to look.

According to figures provided by Light, UT had 48,276 digital subscribers as of October 12, of which 32,564 were labeled “direct pay.” (Plus, anyone who gets the print edition gets a free digital subscription.)

He said UT’s “electronic journal”, an online replication of the print edition, is used by 29% of digital-only subscribers and 8% of print subscribers.

Nonetheless, the UT website boasts, “Today, Union-Tribune publications reach over 96% of San Diego County households every week,” including visitors to and readers of nine community newspapers, the weekly Night + Day entertainment supplement, the lifestyle magazine Pacific San Diego, and the Spanish-language weekly Hoy San Diego.

In March 2020, University of Texas journalism professor Hsiang Iris Chyi and Yee Man Margaret Ng of the University of Illinois published a 23-page study in digital journalism titled “Still Unwilling to Pay: An Empirical Analysis of 50 US Newspapers ‘Digital Subscription Results’. “

One of the newspapers studied was the Union-Tribune (once among the top 25 newspapers in America by circulation).

The authors conclude that print editions outperform digital offerings in terms of use, engagement, preference, emotional attachment, and intent to pay – “all by a large margin.”

They also note studies that even though seven-day door-to-door delivery prices more than doubled between 2008 and 2016, “demand has remained inelastic in most cases, which suggests that the attachment of newspaper readers to the traditional product is stronger than expected ”.

Indeed, researchers estimated that UT’s “digital replica” brought in $ 3.34 million in a recent year, compared to print publishing revenues of $ 30.8 million.

Study: “Still Reluctant to Pay: An Empirical Analysis of Digital Subscription Results from 50 US Newspapers.” “(PDF)

“Print publishing, at a much higher price, remains the most consumed format and the main driver of revenue for the vast majority of newspapers,” they wrote. “In contrast, reaching digital subscribers remains extremely difficult. “

Given the price differential between print and digital editions, they said, encouraging well-paid readers to switch from print to digital is “trading analog dollars for digital pennies.”

Citing 2019 and prior AAM reports, Professor Chyi told The Times of San Diego that “print subscription revenue is still the main source of revenue despite the print edition performance being relatively low (compared to other metropolitan dailies I have studied). “

“As a result,” she said, “it’s probably unrealistic to stop print publishing, which still generates most of the revenue.”

According to AAM reports, UT’s annual base price for daily home delivery has increased from $ 289 in 2017 to $ 832 in 2018 and then to $ 1,040 in 2019.

“In fact, most print readers are incredibly loyal to a product that costs a lot more! ” she said.

Indeed, an article published in September 2015 by the representative of UT readers Adrian Vore was entitled “Readers still passionate about print”.

He cited UT’s reader demographics: “Print readers are predominantly older, about half of the readership is 55 and over. The 18-24 age group represents the smallest readership with around 8%.

Vore wrote that he frequently receives calls from readers who say they’ve been a subscriber for 30, 40, or even 50 years.

“They say they read the newspaper back and forth every morning with their coffee,” he said. “It’s a daily ritual.

But a former UT editorial veteran predicts the end of this daily rite.

“We all know that the UT as we know it today, a printed daily, will soon cease to exist,” said the veteran who did not want to be identified. Even so, “The digital UT needs a lot of work. “

The former employee quoted “today’s evidence: why didn’t UT direct readers to the 101 Ash memo by directing readers to it on the website?” In order to develop readership, UT may also offer readers something that others lack: coverage of local political delegations in Sacramento and DC. “

The veteran asked what UT management is doing to ease the transition to becoming a leader in digital information in San Diego – for readers and advertisers.

“The answer, to the best of my knowledge, is nothing,” the source said. “Newspaper readers don’t get any ‘training’ on how to best use the website. They should be directed to the site. Instead, the attitude is “our newspaper subscribers are all old and will be dead in a few years, so why bother?”

The veteran would like to see additional information, such as court documents and government reports, posted along with stories on the website.

“It’s a surprise because Jeff Light, when he was hired, was described as a digital expert,” the source said. “The UT website should work hand in hand with the newspaper. And it’s not a leader in keeping San Diego residents up to date with the latest news. It was left on television.

But professors said the news industry should recognize that digital transformation is “not a panacea and should address its crisis through audience research on consumers’ news response to news. existing and emerging information products ”.

How much does UT charge for its print product?

UT’s current ‘web-exclusive’ introductory rates include $ 5 per week for print subscriptions 7 days a week and $ 3 per week for Sunday delivery only (all print subscribers have free access to digital news, including the UT ‘paid website). But the rate was only guaranteed for a limited time.

“Usually it’s for eight weeks,” said a UT customer service representative.

After first offering daily delivery for $ 7 per week, the rep said I could get the paper for $ 4.99 per week – guaranteed for 13 weeks.

After 13 weeks?

“We don’t have the rate yet,” she said. “But we’ll make sure to give you notice before the service expires.”

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