Subscriber loyalty sustains Times during economic upheaval

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Since the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 began battering the economy, especially small businesses like The Smithfield Times, many readers have asked how you could help your hometown newspaper weather the crisis.

Atop my list has been a simple request: Subscribe. If you already subscribe, encourage friends and family to do so. If you value community journalism and have the means to do so, buy a gift subscription for someone you know. And, for reasons covered later in this column, be willing to pay us a little more for your subscription.

Subscriptions have always been a vital part of a newspaper’s business model, but in the early 1900s, accompanying our emergence as a mass medium in a low-tech world, advertising replaced subscriptions as newspapers’ cash cow. If you owned a business in a small town, there was no better way to get your message out than with an ad in the local newspaper, which would typically go to 80% or more of households.

A gradually higher-tech world, starting with radio, then television and cable, caused disruption in advertising sales, though newspapers continued to do quite well through the 20th century.

I have vivid memories, as a teenage intern at my hometown newspaper in the 1980s, of local merchants streaming through the newspaper’s front door on Monday mornings with their “copy” for that week’s full-page ads. Even in small towns back then, there were locally owned businesses selling every imaginable product and service: furniture, jewelry, office supplies, men’s and women’s clothing, you name it. There were multiple locally owned banks, and they competed fiercely.

If you owned a newspaper for the better part of the 20th century, all you had to do to run a profitable business was unlock the front door every morning, be nice to customers when the phone rang and report the news adequately. And you didn’t have to charge much for a subscription, because advertising was so lucrative.

Then came the 1990s, when the internet became widely available for consumer use. The ensuing years have seen transformational change in the way consumers shop, and, as a result, a complete remaking of local economies. Consolidation in nearly every retail sector resulted in fewer businesses, and even fewer that are locally owned. Thus, less advertising in newspapers.

The other big shift has been in the way citizens consume information, with a steady, growing preference for online news over the printed newspaper. Times Publisher Emeritus John Edwards, to his enduring credit, avoided early on the mistake of many publishers who gave away their content online.

John wisely recognized that journalism has value regardless of how it is delivered and that consumers needed to pay for it. So, while he made the news available online, you still had to pay to read it.

Thirty years later, newspaper publishers who weren’t as smart are scrambling to sell digital subscriptions to consumers who’ve known nothing but free online news their entire adult lives. That’s like putting the toothpaste back in the tube, which is to say, not easy.

Thanks to John’s foresight, the Times has a solid base of print and digital subscribers. You sustained us during COVID-related economic shutdowns, which caused further stress on advertising revenue as our customers’ businesses were either shut down entirely or severely curtailed.

It’s important to note that newspaper advertising isn’t dead. Dozens of local businesses still rely on us as their trusted marketing partner, and for good reason: Our combination of print and digital readership remains unmatched in its reach in the Isle of Wight and Surry community.

But COVID disruptions have been a reminder of the critical importance of subscriptions to our business model.

Regrettably, the U.S. Postal Service has announced an 8.8% increase on periodicals postage, effective next week. That’s on top of smaller postal increases earlier this year and in early 2020. Since 2017, the postage we pay to mail your newspaper has increased nearly 15%, yet the cost of a subscription hasn’t changed in more than a decade.

Effective Sept. 1, the cost of a one-year subscription mailed to your home in Isle of Wight and Surry will go from $25 to $30. If you pay for two years at a time, your cost will go from $40 to $50. Most subscribers are paid ahead, so you won’t see the change until your next renewal, whenever that occurs. The cost of an online-only subscription is unchanged at $14 a year.

Even with the increase, your mail subscription will cost you less than 60 cents per week — still quite a bargain, we believe, in this inflationary economy of $2 bottles of water and $3 loaves of bread. Engaged citizens who read the newspaper also value nourishment of the mind.

 

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.