There it was, a beast I thought I would never see again. I thought the breed was extinct. He almost winked at me, I was sure.
It was a wallet selling The New York Times. But such racks don’t exist in real life, do they? The cost of newspaper street is $3. It’s 12 quarters. No one carries such loot anymore. Why would a purse manufacturer make a 12 quart purse?
The stately rack sat on the porch outside a convenience store in California’s wine country. It looked almost new. The day’s newspapers were still inside. You took a paper and then paid for it at the counter.
But the rack now symbolizes the decline of the small town American everyday. Hundreds of these newspapers have died because of declining revenues. They could never do enough selling single copies of newspapers one by one. Why not just make the paper free and make money from the increased ad sales you’d get from higher circulation?
Nobody at the small traditional newspaper would accept such an idea. Their parents and grandparents before them didn’t do it that way. You put a price on the paper because otherwise it would become a worthless piece of junk – another fishwrapper.
The New York Times saw it coming and was lucky. He could unveil a national plan to sell affordable digital subscriptions to anyone with a computer.
Most small town newspapers cannot sell many digital subscriptions. Journalism schools have begun to study “information deserts” – large areas where there is little information because no one covers them.
The Times in the 1970s sold its newspaper in Manhattan for a quarter and 50 cents outside the borough. Then prices soared and wallets had to follow. When the price reached $2, they pulled back. They wouldn’t make boxes that took longer than eight quarts. The newspaper raised its price to $2.50 but left the purses alone for a while. Eight quarters went to get a newspaper. Such paid racks today are old.
Dozens of newspapers could save themselves instantly by ending paid circulation. Stop charging people for every article. Make them easy to get and free in markets, stores, restaurants, banks, office buildings and fashionable clothes. The newspaper would instantly double or triple its circulation. This might increase ad rates, but actually reduce the cost for advertisers to reach every reader.
This is called the network television model. Broadcast stations are free to viewers and supported by advertising.
But history never really supported the free daily. By the 1800s, the rotary printing press was on its way, allowing papers to print both larger and faster copies. “Daily Mail…Millions of Sales!” ran one of the London newspapers at the time when newspapers cost around three British cents (about 90 cents today). Technology was catching up. Drawings and photos did not lend themselves to mass reproduction until the early 20th century when advertisements began to appear in blocks throughout the newspaper.
Newspapers were sold by newsagents and in displays, paper by paper. They were also billed this way, resulting in a bulky system powered by dimes and quarters. Phone peddlers sold subscriptions for pennies. It was a cost sinkhole.
Many readers imagine that the Aspen Daily News, launched in 1978, came up with a new business plan when it cost nothing. But that was not the case. The newspaper was a one-sheet wall poster and no one would pay anything for it. By the time it had grown to 16 pages per day, the owners refused to put a price tag on it. This would cut the spread by more than half. You couldn’t pick up a copy anywhere in town anymore. You would have to go through a “guardian”. Readers and advertisers would revolt. Free dailies have spread, starting in Colorado with free dailies in Aspen and Vail.
But the idea of persuading a poorly paid newspaper to change its model did not catch on. Nobody did it that way. The owners would balk at a proposal to scrap their paid daily – which is very expensive – and replace it with a non-paying publication. There would be a delay before the “boost effect” kicks in.
Today’s newspapers face challenges everywhere, especially the smaller ones. Classifieds leaked to Free Sheets and Craigslist. Each card and each month sells advertisements to merchants. We imagine that people don’t really read anymore. They all go online, text and chat the whole time.
It is still possible that some of the 1,279 remaining paid dailies in the United States will change models. But such a move is not on the prowl.
The writer ([email protected]) is one of the founders of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here on Sundays.