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Is Star Tribune bringing back its TV section … for a price?

In nearly two years of covering local media at MinnPost, one lament I still hear repeatedly is about the Strib dumping its weekly TV magazine. Even though then-new owners Avista Capital Partners knifed the section way back in November 2007, people inside and outside the Strib blame TV Week’s demise for acclerating the paper’s circulation decline.

But as Avista prepares to exit the scene, the Strib is pondering whether to revive its Tube Times.

A reader forwarded me an online survey the Strib is conducting; there are many interesting questions (more on that later), but one that jumped out was, “If a magazine with local TV listings was available in the area for 50 cents, how likely would you be to buy it every week?”

This is something other newspapers have already done, including the San Jose Mercury News (part of the same chain as the Pioneer Press).

If fans were willing to put their money where their mouths are, they’d wind up shelling out $25 a year for the listings — nearly 10 percent of the Strib’s current subscription price.

Why would a struggling product try such a move? As MinnPost’s Joe Kimball reported in 2007, the section’s advertising was drying up and it was costing Avista a million bucks a year. If the million-dollar figure is still operative, the Strib would need 40,000 of its 530,000 or so subscribers to buy in.

As someone who regularly tossed the section in the recycling, I’m all for a la carte pricing in this case (though how long before they upcharge for sections I actually read?). Hard newsies often look down their noses at the frills, but the enduring passion on this one indicates TV listings are still a key building block for a mass audience. And newspapers retain enough fixed costs that they still need a mass audience.

The Strib is also playing with scenarios that involve general subscription increases, though I was recently told any decision won’t happen until after the paper safely exits bankruptcy this fall.

The survey does reference one potential price break: “If you were offered an incentive, such as a discount, to switch your method of paying for your subscription to an automatic monthly credit card charge, how interested would you be in that offer?”

This is good business — there’s much evidence that automatic renewals reduce subscription drops — though monthly only? Is the Strib that desperate for cash flow?

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Norman Larson on 08/13/2009 - 12:45 pm.

    I liked the TV weekly section, but I would not pay extra for it. There is a lot of drivel that, in my opinion, could be gotten rid of. Also, our subscription charge is automatically billed to a credit card; I am not aware of receiving any incentive in exchange for that.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/13/2009 - 01:22 pm.

    I stopped buying the Sunday Star Tribune and switched to the Pioneer Press because of this issue.

  3. Submitted by Rick Ellis on 08/13/2009 - 01:23 pm.

    Great read, David.

    As someone who’s recently struggled mightly with the Strib’s circulation department, I would settle for them providing a bit more training, particularly when it comes to dealing with orders that come in from those third-party telemarketers they use (Grrrr.)

    But as someone who a)lives in the Twin Cities and b)makes his living writing about TV and running a web site targeted to TV fans, I’m extremely skeptical that a subscription TV section would work here. Places like San Jose have struggled to make it work, but they had the advantage of working from the starting point of having a local TV critic with a strong personal brand and a weekday TV section that included primarily locally-written material.

    If the Strib continues to rely primarily on wire and/or partners for TV content, then they have no way to drive people to this subscription product.

    And yes, I know the Strib has a TV critic, although it’s not clear to me just how much he’s been allowed to write for them. They either need to have Neil appearing in the paper six days a week, or find someone else they’re happier with.

  4. Submitted by Keith Tipton on 08/14/2009 - 09:14 am.

    Thanks for pointing to my blog. I don’t know that there’s been much demand to bring back the “free” TV guide section here in Lubbock. I assume the people who want it pay for it, hence no griping.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/14/2009 - 09:30 am.

    After several years of shrinking the size of the paper a price increase will be my incentive to cancel at least weekday service for probably the first time in at least 30 years. I can read it at work during the week.

    I laughed at USA Today when it first came out, short articles, small total size compared to the Star Trib. Now the Star Trib has become so small it is hardly worth it. They want to charge for that tv section that was free for decades? They could save some money dumping the old dinosaur, Sid, who apparently has never had a close personal friend in the female sports community.

    Their answer to the pressure from the internet is to become less valuable. That might work for their economics but it doesn’t work for me as a reader. Maybe I can cancel, use the internet for local news and then subscribe to a good paper like the New York Times for my national news.

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