Why Should Readers Buy the Sunday Paper if They Can Read It on the Web First?
As to whether we’re accelerating the move away from print because of the small sample of stories we publish early, we don’t think so. We think we’re striking the right balance, for now, for both digital and print subscribers. Many agree. We surveyed a sample of our Sunday newspaper subscribers recently about what they thought. Most felt picking some stories for early digital publication didn’t make a difference in their reading experience. Of the remainder, nearly three times as many said it improved their reading experience in print as felt it detracted from it.
September 18 2012
by Margaret Sullivan, New York Times, Public Editors Journal
From time to time on this blog, I’ll publish a provocative question from a reader and ask someone from The Times’s newsroom to respond. In this case, the question is from a young physician from Pittsburgh, Dr. Ravi Bhatia. The answer is from John M. Geddes, a managing editor.
I am an avid reader of your print newspaper and enthusiastically follow the newspaper industry. This is somewhat rare for my demographic (I am in my 20s). I understand that the print industry is going through difficult times and ultimately, it looks as if there will be a permanent shift from print to digital media. My question for you is: When you post articles on your Web site (like: “Sick on the Road? Try the Grocery Store“) four or five days in advance of printing it in the paper, aren’t you further taking away any incentive for readers to purchase/subscribe to the print product? Obviously, for breaking news, there is no sense in waiting for the next day to print the article and then post it to the Web site. However, for an article like the one mentioned above, I think it is appropriate to first publish it in the paper, particularly the Sunday paper where readers expect to read new, original material. Perhaps a note in the corner of the site, where Sunday Review is currently placed, should give the topics in the Sunday issue rather than links to the actual articles until publication. I am curious to hear your thoughts and would love to continue this conversation.
Dear Dr. Bhatia,
The discussion about when to publish digitally has gone on in our news organization since we started our efforts on the Web 16 years ago. As time has gone on, we’ve adopted a more nuanced approach than our original reflex to publish digitally only after our paper was printed.
What we try to do is to balance the needs, and note the differences, between two sets of subscribers – print and digital. (And let’s remember such a distinction is a bit muddied since more than half of our print subscribers visit us daily on at least one of our digital platforms.)
A vast majority of our stories are published digitally in the 24-hour span around when we begin rolling our printing presses. In any given week, probably about 15 percent of our articles are digitally published earlier than that.
The tempo of when we publish these stories is dictated by our desire to hit a number of different notes with our digital readers. And as in picking up a paper, each individual has his or her own rhythm about when and how often they come to us in the course of day.
But when subscribers do visit us, we want to present them with new choices. Sometimes that means surfacing different feature stories on the home page or in the top news sections of our apps, ahead of publication to our print readers. Some of our digital readers may choose to dive into a story immediately; others may choose to save a story for a later read or place a mental bookmark to read the story when it comes in print form.
Another element that plays into our timing is our potential digital audience, which varies through the week. There is less traffic on our Web site on the weekends than on weekdays, so that plays into some of our choices for early publication.
And lastly, we also try to gain impact. When we time stories to appear in tandem in both the newspaper and on digital devices we hope to give our subscribers, whether print or digital, confidence that they’re reading something that will only be in The New York Times. It is about keeping an exclusive exclusive.
Don’t go away with the impression that this is a precisely followed formula or locked in stone, because it isn’t. The habits of how people consume news, on which platforms, at what times and at what pace are not fixed in time. And this evolution spiral accelerates with new digital devices, new software, new social networks and even new circulation routes.
Digital devices and the printed page present different experiences in how information is consumed. The printed paper is physically linear and that linearity of sections and pages fuels the readers’ navigation. Digital devices present information in a more multidimensional form giving readers more choices in how to navigate, to dive deeper or jump forward. The reader has more freedom.
What we have to do is improve those digital choices for our subscribers. Perhaps, as you note, give them clearer information about when a story is to be or was published in print, let subscribers save stories across all platforms to read later, or be able to signal if they’ve seen a story already. We’re working on all that.
As to whether we’re accelerating the move away from print because of the small sample of stories we publish early, we don’t think so. We think we’re striking the right balance, for now, for both digital and print subscribers.
Many agree. We surveyed a sample of our Sunday newspaper subscribers recently about what they thought. Most felt picking some stories for early digital publication didn’t make a difference in their reading experience. Of the remainder, nearly three times as many said it improved their reading experience in print as felt it detracted from it.
It is a new world for all of us.
Thanks for being a subscriber.
John M. Geddes