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At the Star Tribune, Saturday cannibalization produces Sunday gains

So how did the long-suffering Star Tribune post the only circulation gains among the nation’s 13 biggest newspapers today? By getting a big payoff from a Saturday strategy hatched one year ago.

Tireless Braublog readers will remember that last October, the Star Tribune dropped its Saturday newsstand edition for an “Early Sunday” version. This effectively pushed Saturday circ into Sunday, and you can see it from the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX report.

Strib Sunday sales were up 27,000 copies from a year ago, to 504,616, earning this headline today: “Sunday circulation up 5.7 percent.” However, Saturday sales were down 60,000 copies, or 18 percent (even as Monday-Friday sales fell a mere 2.3 percent).

In other words, the Strib gained one Sunday paper for every two Saturday papers it lost.

That may be a sound business strategy (Sunday ads can fetch more), but it represents a two-time gaming of the numbers. Why two times? Circ reports are released twice yearly, and the March 2010 report also benefited from the Saturday-to-Sunday switch. Sunday circ then was down 1 percent from March 2009, but the apples-to-apples drop would have been steeper.

Another balm to the Strib’s numbers: e-editions. These digital replicas of the paper are handy for staunching circulation bleeding. For example, as of this newest report, I count as two Strib subscribers. I buy a full-priced print subscription and this spring, accepted the Strib’s offer to pay another $15 for the e-edition.

The Strib has aggressively marketed these things to current readers to get more money out of the hard-cores. E-editions can also lure new readers, and the lower price point can keep some grumblers from leaving. Overall, Sunday e-editions count for about 12,000 of the 27,000 year-over-year circ rise.

(The Strib may have benefited from new Sunday sections in Dakota and Washington counties; still trying to chat up an exec about all this.)

Saturday numbers are striking here, too: Despite the 60,000-copy year-over-year drop, e-editions are up nearly 13,000. Overall, the Strib is distributing 73,000 fewer individually paid Saturday newspapers than a year ago, about a 25 percent drop.

Again, there’s a potentially sound business strategy here: E-editions cost relatively little to produce or distribute. If you can get advertisers and subscribers to pay enough, digital versions can conceivably be more profitable. There’s nothing in this latest report about revenue, but I’m skeptical that’s happening.

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