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Mapping the newspaper war, 25 years after the Star Tribune invaded Pioneer Press turf

With paid ads falling, circulation is more important to newspapers than ever. But executives who launched the Star Tribune’s incursion into St. Paul Pioneer Press territory 25 years ago would find a very familiar map today.

Print still accounts for around 93 percent of paid circulation for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press.
MinnPost photo by Tom Nehil

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a Twin Cities Reader cover story titled “When Ownerships Collide.” The occasion? The Minneapolis Star and Tribune expanded home delivery “throughout the eastern metro area” and dumped the “Minneapolis” from its nameplate.

In 1987, publisher Roger Parkinson pegged the Strib’s east-metro market share versus the St. Paul Pioneer Press at 25 percent. A quarter-century later? A mere 32 percent, according to MinnPost’s analysis of paid circulation stats.

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I know what you’re thinking: It’s the Internet era, who cares? Geography erased, print a thing of the past.

But print still accounts for around 93 percent of paid circulation at either paper — we buy 720,000 papers each Sunday — and the bulk of the profits. Simply put, Sunday circulation keeps over 350 Minnesota journalists on the job.

At various points in this reporting project, both papers pooh-poohed the idea of a newspaper war –yet both produced meticulous stats showing how they fared versus their rival.  They both compete with broadcast and other Internet destinations, but there’s still opportunity in each others’ book of business.

Using Audit Bureau of Circulations reports, MinnPost has mapped the battle — which shows a front line that Parkinson would have recognized.

Our first map shows who sells more papers and digital copies (print replicas and paid apps). It does not include free copies that may include Sunday ads.

Strib ZIP codes are green, PiPress are blue. Click on any zip to see estimated copies sold, number of households, and “penetration” (copies divided by households, a percentage mass-marketers crave).

West metro readers — who can’t even subscribe to the print PiPress — might be surprised the St. Paul paper’s enduring dominance in its home base.

Metrowide, the Strib still sells more copies (516,000 to 259,000) and  fetches more on the newsstands ($1.75 versus $1). However, Parkinson’s 1987 reassurance — that the PiPress could survive in a smaller geographic chunk of Minnesota — has proven true.

In Ramsey County, the PiPress claims a 73 percent market share; in Washington County, 75 percent. Only Dakota County is close: the PiPress ekes out a 54-46 percent win. The lighter-shaded zips are where the competition is fiercest and no paper gets above 55 percent market share. Eagan’s 55122 is marginally PiPress; Rosemount’s 55068 is marginally Strib. 

What about each paper’s individual performance? Here’s the Strib’s: 50-percent-plus penetration is green, under 25 percent red, in-between yellow. Two MSP airport ZIPs with sales but no households are gray.

Generally speaking, wealth correlates with newspaper buying. Wealthier ZIPs in Edina, prestigious west Bloomington, Lake Minnetonka and Plymouth all top 50 percent. Meanwhile, north and near-south Minneapolis are red.

The PiPress, same scale:

Wealthier areas like Mendota Heights and North Oaks top 50 percent. However, the PiPress also does well in South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and Cottage Grove. The PiPress has more consistent home-market penetration — only one “red zone” compared to multiple Strib ones in central-city Minneapolis.

Which ZIPs purchase the most newspapers? Here’s a chart that combines the Strib’s and PiPress’s market penetration. Congrats, east metro – it’s good to have competition.

The Strib has received plenty of ink — and pixels — for posting circulation gains in its 2012 audit. Since 1987, the Sunday Strib has tumbled from 625,000 sold to 516,277. But the latter number is up from 500,412 in 2011. Print circulation alone increased 1,700 copies.

Let’s map the change (green = up, red = down):

The Strib numbers are actually dropping in Minneapolis and inner-ring Hennepin suburbs, while growth comes from the east metro and western exurbs.

The Strib lost 4,000 paid copies in its biggest counties (10,000-plus sold). It’s a tiny drop — about 1 percent, which circulation vice president Steve Alexander judges acceptable considering a 9.2 percent home-delivery price hike in April 2011. New digital subscriptions make it easier for readers in the hinterlinds to become paying customers. Still, the slippage shows the Strib’s ongoing challenge.

That’s one reason why the Minneapolis-based paper has made a renewed push for east-metro subscribers. While the Strib sells about 2,500 fewer copies throughout its 13-county “net designated market,” sales are up 3,000 in the PiPress’s smaller NDM.

PiPress publisher Guy Gilmore — who thunders like Ned Beatty in “Network” — has a simple response: “We still have an 80 percent market share!”

While the Strib emphasizes post-2010 numbers — after CEO Mike Klingensmith arrived — Gilmore takes a longer view. Since he came to St. Paul in 2005, the Strib has always bobbed up or down a few thousand papers in his territory. The bottom line, he says, is that local advertisers will choose the 75 percent paper over the 25 percent paper.

“Joe Soucheray is right,” Gilmore proclaims. “They are the Minneapolis paper.”

While acknowledging Dakota County is close, he adds, “We went from being 20,000 [copies] behind to 6,000 ahead.”

Over at the Strib, Alexander believes the PiPress is propping up its number with a ridiculously low $2-per-year posted Sunday subscription rate. The Strib discounts, too – selected new subscribers can pay $26 for a year of Sunday Stribs and get a $25 gift card, which nets out at $1 per year — but the PiPress’s $2 rate is good for anyone, any time.

Gilmore pooh-poohs the discount rationale, though he won’t specify the number of cut-rate copies beyond “a few thousand.” He insists, as he has for years, the PiPress’ circulation profitability (subscription fees minus delivery and sales costs) are rising. In other words, whatever discounting the PiPress does doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

(Sadly, ABC changed its reporting rules as industry circulation plunged, so I can’t verify discounting numbers. And because both papers are private businesses, I can’t cross-check profitability, either.)

Meanwhile, Gilmore notes the Strib plays Sunday games, too — in 2009, they turned their Saturday newsstand edition into an “early Sunday” one, adding tens of thousands of copies to the Sunday numbers. “Early Sunday” gets you the Sunday ads, but for a mere 75 cents — below the PiPress’s $1 newsstand price. Still, the change doesn’t affect our Strib 2011/12 analysis; those numbers are apples-to-apples.

Digital natives may snort that this is all just buggy whip manufacturers arguing over handle design. The PiPress looks like a pamphlet on low-revenue weekdays, and Strib workers took haircuts in bankruptcy. Then again, both papers have — for now — forestalled the massive cuts that plagued them as recently as 2010. They have different Internet strategies — digital subscriptions and pay walls for the Strib, free “digital first” for the PiPress — but the paid circ battle will likely rage for years to come.