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Weighing the fate of The Daily Mail

October 29, 2006|by JOHN LEAGUE

Those of us in the communications business face a constantly evolving landscape, and the successful companies react to it.

Over the years, The Herald-Mail has continually changed and adjusted, as the expectations of our readers, customers and community have grown and changed.

In 1982, we introduced a Sunday paper, and watched its circulation grow from the low 30,000s to 40,000. Our Sunday paper has become a reader favorite and an essential advertising vehicle for customers large and small.

In 1996, our Web site was introduced in earnest, and we have seen that grow from several thousand monthly page views to 4.5 million page views, and more than 17,000 unique daily visitors.

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The Morning Herald has continued to show circulation gains, in part because of content improvements, and in part because the morning is when most people want their newspaper and have the time and need to read it.

Five years ago, we didn't publish books. Since then, we've sold more than 11,000 books, each filled cover-to-cover with local information no one else can provide.

We've begun publishing a very-well-received local magazine, and will expand our offerings next year.

We've begun a number of niche publications in an effort to target the diverse needs of a changing and growing community.

We've gotten into event marketing with our successful Job Fairs and projects such as Big Boys, Big Toys.

As a newspaper company, we're fortunate. Our "portfolio of products" is strong, and our business is healthy.

That said, we have one product that, over the years, has not performed up to our expectations despite the best efforts of everyone at The Herald-Mail. And that's The Daily Mail, our afternoon paper.

Across the country, readership of afternoon papers has plummeted, and that's been happening for four decades.

Afternoon papers went out of business or were folded into morning operations years ago in Baltimore and Washington, and within the past five years in Frederick, Md.

Not too long ago, all of the newspapers up and down Interstate 81, from Winchester, Va., to Chambersburg, Pa., were afternoon. Now, all are morning.

Television has eroded the market for afternoon papers, and now lifestyle is even more of a factor. People work longer. Single-parent households - double the number of what they were 50 years ago - just don't have the time to place newspaper reading among their "must do" evening agenda items.

I don't believe it's a flaw with the product. The Mail is a bastion of local information, the heart and soul of any communications company, print, broadcast or digital. It's well-edited, and an attractive newspaper. And it still has a loyal following.

Our community also is seeing significant growth for the first time. Many of the newcomers are commuters to the metro areas and their suburbs. If they read any local paper, they read a morning paper.

Along with nearly every other newspaper company in the United States, we just can't seem to find the right formula for publishing an afternoon newspaper. But regardless of how good I believe The Daily Mail may be - and I still believe it's an excellent local newspaper - readers are telling us that they no longer have the desire or the time to read it.

So during the next few months, we are going to take a hard look at The Daily Mail.

We've asked our company's marketing director to research the issue locally, looking at reader preference in terms of publication cycle and content.

We will use that information to decide how to proceed with either two publications or one combined-daily morning publication.

I believe that running a newspaper company is a public trust. We informed our employees of our decision to study The Daily Mail's future last Monday, and I'm alerting our readers today.

To be clear, no final decisions have been made as to whether we will continue to publish an afternoon paper.

That said, at the end of the day, if we're publishing one newspaper rather than two, we will publish not one line less of local information in a combined edition than we publish in two editions today.

In fact, our challenge will be to publish more local information in print, with an expanding number of print and digital products with which to do so.

We will do our best to keep everyone abreast of our decisions moving forward.

If you have any comments, thoughts or ideas, please pass them along. I'd certainly welcome and encourage you to do so.

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at jleague@herald-mail.com.

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