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Twin Cities newspapers: At the e-edition epicenter

OK, so maybe newspapers need to shuck their dead tree versions to survive. No one knows what that paperless version should look like, but the Twin Cities is the unexpected epicenter of one format: the e-edition.

E-editions are, simply, digital replica of the print layout. You can see the Pioneer Press' above. It offers familiarity with none of the recycling and the good news — for publishers at least — is that readers pay.

Because additional "copies" cost nearly nothing to make and distribute, e-editions have replaced home delivery in collapsing newspaper towns. To save money, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News dumped their four least profitable editions (Monday-Wednesday and Saturday), offering customers the e-alternative.

Media News Group, which owns the Detroit News — and the Pioneer Press — may be the nation's most aggressive e-edition marketer. But while poor gasping Detroit has received most of the e-edition attention lately, the Motor City has nothing on St. Paul.

According to my review of spring Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, one in five weekday PiPress papers sold isn't on paper — it's an e-edition. That's the nation's second-highest percentage, behind the Memphis Commercial Appeal (more on them later), and ahead of the Wall Street Journal.

The Star Tribune's e-share is less than half as much — 9 percent — but still good enough for fifth among large local papers. (Sixth if you count the Journal).

While the PiPress weekday circulation edged up 0.3 percent between March 2008 and 2009, its composition changed radically. In 2008, 96 percent of paid copies were print. In 2009, 79 percent.

By comparison, the Strib's paid weekday circ slid 3 percent but its print percentage barely budged, from 93 percent to 91 percent.

So what's going in St. Paul?

I was on the case late last month, shortly before publisher Guy Gilmore cut off communication over an unfortunate analogy in a previous circ piece. About two hours after I emailed circ VP Andrew Mok some e-edition questions, Gilmore issued a stem-winding staff memo warning "this blog" would continue to "chip away our apparent success."

But at the risk of turning gnats into camels, here's my analysis:

Moving readers from print to digital can be excellent business. One example: me.

I live in Minneapolis, where the PiPress won't home deliver. I've never paid them a dime in subscriber revenue — until now. Seventy-four bucks in fact, for my annual e-subscription. (Although the PiPress' Tecnavia platform is not a thing of beauty, I prefer the print layout for doing Daily Glean.)

Because St. Paul doesn't pay for printing, drivers and delivery, they might net more from me that the Strib does from my $215 print subscription.

As in Detroit, e-editions also keep cash flowing when unprofitable routes get axed. The PiPress is dropping far-flung delivery beyond its east metro core, and offering readers the e-option instead.

E-subscriptions can also be virtual freebies for folks who take — or keep taking — the profitable Sunday print paper. PiPress non-discounted Sunday print circ has held up well, down just 2 percent. Print still accounts for 93 percent of circulation that day.

Finally, e-editions can replace the lowest-value bulk print purchases — so-called "third-party distribution" where, for example, sponsors pay for papers handed out at schools. Third-party has propped up circ numbers for years, but advertisers rebelled because those readers don't really care about getting the paper.

E-edition champ Memphis is the textbook case. It shocked the newspaper world last month when it reported a staggering 31 percent circulation gain while the industry as a whole dropped 7 percent. The reason? Thousands of school e-subscriptions. The Commercial Appeal's individually paid weekday print number fell 14 percent, in line with the PiPress' 13 percent drop.

While it's unclear if the PiPress has swapped third-party for e-editions, those two numbers have flipped. In March '08, the PiPress sold 20,000 third-party copies and 7,300 e-editions. A year later, the numbers were 8,900 and 40,100, respectively.

It's one reason, among many, that the PiPress runs only one printing press some weekdays.

The e-conomics are so compelling that the PiPress has taken a tactic I wrote about in January — buck-a-year subscriptions — west of the river.

Five months ago, the Dakota County deal included Friday and Sunday print editions plus Monday-Thursday e-versions. Last week, two Minneapolis readers sent me the all-digital equivalent: a PiPress email (at left) offering 24 months of Wednesday-Sunday e-editions for the $2 price.

Hey, it's two bucks more than the PiPress would otherwise get — though I feel a bit dumb for paying full price. (Then again, newspapers increasingly price their products like airline tickets.)

As I well know, Gilmore is sensitive to any suggestion the PiPress is fluffing its numbers through discounting. In his memo, he stated flatly that not only was total circulation up, but so were the department's revenues and profits. More revenue means discounts are offset by loyalists like me. (My e-subscription went from $58 to $74 this year.)

So what's the downside? As an e-subscriber, it's hard for me to believe the PiPress reaps as much ad revenue from a digital-trending mix as from traditional print editions.

I can click on an e-edition story to make it bigger, but I rarely do that for an ad. Even on my large desktop monitor, "print" ads don't pop like they do on the page. The PiPress' Tecnavia version doesn't link to clients' websites, or insert ads when you enlarge a story.

But the e-shift might not be costing the PiPress money — at least not now, according to a couple of PiPress advertisers I spoke with.

Pat Kyllonen, manager of a St. Paul-area discount furniture store, says she doesn't really pay attention to circulation figures; she make her judgment by how her PiPress ad moves product.

"We get a wonderful price on a quarter-page ad," she says. "We've been with them for two years now, and judging by the response at the store, it's good enough to keep doing."

Mike LaMotte, vice-president for Golden Valley-based National Camera Exchange, is a bigger and more sophisticated client. He pays attention to the overall circ figure, and expects discounts if it falls. Still, he admits, "I wasn't aware that circulation counted e-editions. That was never conveyed to me by anybody at the Pioneer Press. I always assumed it was print."

Ultimately, LaMotte proved platform-neutral. He was less concerned about the medium than about "reader commitment."

For example, he didn't see any reason to regard me differently than folks in Lex-Ham getting the paper on their doorstep. "I think there's some merit to having our ads in a newspaper that charges a standard rate," he says. "If you're paying $70 a year, that shows you really want the paper. From that standpoint, you're a quality audience."

He was concerned about the two-buck offers: "That's getting pretty close to free circulation — that's less valuable. I think that would make a difference to us."

Like Kyllonen, LaMotte ultimately judges his buy according to the revenue it produces for National Camera's six local stores. Recently, he bought a front-page, four-color PiPress ad; sales jumped 15 percent at his Roseville location, the one in the PiPress circulation zone.

"These days, when retail's a little difficult, that was a nice return," he says.

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Comments (4)

The next logical step for e-editions is some sort of reader so we can wander from the computer with the newspaper. The online readers are somewhat clunky, and I'm not one that likes to be tied to the computer for all of my reading. Maybe something actually newspaper sized, instead of the smaller readers like the Kindle, as shown on the eInk website:

Why not just put news content behind a paywall? Why should it all be free online? I don't need a special print-like edition, I just want all the content anywhere I can use it. (ie: phone, netbook, laptop, desktop, ebook reader, etc) Special readers break this. Print 'editions' break the whole breaking-news model. Just seems like the attachment to print pushes back advances in news delivery rather than moving it forward. If online ads are worth more if people are paying to get to content (ie: really want the content) then do it.

Scott - the idea is to blend the place-in-time factor of "print" with the immediacy of the web.

I agree readers should have options - as I noted, I like having a readable print-laid-out roundup in the morning. Others may not. I think the goal is to deliver content by many means, as long as it can be funded.

By the way, in case it wasn't clear, I access the PiPress e-edition from my browser. It just used Tecnavia's proprietary presentation in the browser window, but it's not a real speed bump to the user.

I tried to sign up for the e-Edition and I never got a confirmation ... called their customer service line and they were very unhelpful. I guess I'll just stick with the Star Tribune