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

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

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.

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/18/2012 - 08:54 am.

    Dinosaurs probably fought over the last available food, too…

    …after that last big asteroid impact. The print news business is in the same position as those dinosaurs, except facing a different kind of catastrophe.

    I know MinnPost considers local “journalism” as represented by the Star-Trib and Pioneer Press one of its subject matters, but I think you may overestimate the interest of your readers in their health and welfare.

    What % of the “news” content of these dinosaurs comes straight off their wire service subscriptions?? 70% ?? 80 % ?? They don’t even care enough, most times, to even fiddle with the headline they download.

    Their product is flimsy, second-hand, out of date, never up to date, and then, where they have a chance to contribute to the public interest, e.g., in the Vikings stadium matter, they engage in money-grubbing self-interest.

    I could care less what happens to either of these dinosaurs.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 10/18/2012 - 09:12 am.

      Well …

      I’m always amused when the first commenter, who read the story minutes after it came out, says “who cares?” I do think the stats (both the ones above and our own metrics) show there’s a lot of interest in what the dailies are doing. 

      As for the “70-80% wire service” comment, you may be arguing from bias, not facts. I picked today’s print Strib and here’s the breakdown between staff-produced versus wire bylines:

      Front + Twin Cities/Region: 24 out of 39 (61% staff-produced)
      Sports: 17 of 23 (73% staff-produced)
      Business: 9 of 15 (60% staff-produced) 

      As papers have shrunk, the Strib, in print at least, has chosen to emphasize their local reporting.

      Anyway, thanks for reading!

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/18/2012 - 01:28 pm.

        It’s in the eye of the beholder

        I didn’t mean to imply “who cares” – as if no one cares – I’m saying I don’t care.

        I won’t dispute your characterization of the Strib’s content today, nor across a wider scope of time either, but even if about 40 %, as your numbers suggest, are straight off the wire, I’d argue the same. (I had seen a study a while back which supported those higher figures I quoted, but can’t quote them now – mea culpa – and they may very well be changing anyway as the environment changes.)

        The wire services are a very substantial part of what the local papers print, and this is true also in newspapers across the country. It is the distribution point for a boatload of propaganda, too, besides the other content we know as news.

        I can get this kind of information (wire service info) off the web in near real time, and at no cost. The papers’ wire feeds are a day old.

        Another thing: your article mentions nothing about the demographics of age in the readership those figures claim. I’m pretty sure, but willing to be rebutted, that the readership falls into the higher end of the age categories.

        As that readership ages, I expect less and less reliance on print news. I don’t think the young pay much attention to it. And I just heard on the radio that Newsweek is going to print its last hard copy edition sometime soon – a different kind of publication, yes, but suffering from the same dynamics that are causing the newspapers to suffer.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 10/18/2012 - 09:25 am.

    Way to follow up on a story you wrote during the Reagan Administration. Longevity!

  3. Submitted by Dylan Belden on 10/18/2012 - 09:34 am.


    Unless I’m missing something, some of this math is wrong. Both of the Eagan zips that are light blue appear to have more Strib subscriptions, yet the Pioneer’s percentage is listed as being higher.


    Households: 12,587
    StarTribune copies sold: 4,268 (30.26%)
    Pioneer Press copies sold: 4,257 (33.82%

    4,268 divided by 12,587 is 33.9, not 30.26.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 10/18/2012 - 10:20 am.

      Nice catch, Dylan

      The map is actually correct, as is the Strib’s household-penetration percentage. But the info box is picking up the wrong column for Strib copies sold. We’ll fix that ASAP. Thanks

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/18/2012 - 10:08 am.

    An interesting piece

    for those of us who still like the feel of paper between our fingers or propping a folded section against our coffee cups while we eat our eggs.

    Good timing, too. Just this morning I was debating whether to finally throw in the towel with the Press and expand my Sunday-only Strib subscription. Three things have kept me on board this long: local coverage, weekly TV listings, and family history. (My grandfather, uncle and father were printers at the Press/Dispatch for decades, my brothers and I delivered it for years and I threw Sunday bundles in the mail room just after high school.)

    FWIW, I carried both the Press/Dispatch and the Strib in the same suburban Ramsey County neighborhoods, at the same time, in the early ’60s, with a split of about 75% PD/25% Strib.

  5. Submitted by Robert Russell on 10/18/2012 - 11:41 am.

    Great article David!

    Thank you for reinforcing that with the daily rags, Print is still King. As part of the team that delivers the Pioneer Press to most of Dakota County, we are honored to get those papers into the hands of our faithful readers each morning.

    Incidentally, we have definitely notices a circulation shift outward from inner to outer ring suburbs. However, more people in cities closer to the core (for instance, Eagan in our delivery area) still maintain a daily subscription, which is usually full price, whereas people further out (say, Farmington) have the discounted Sunday subscriptions. I would imagine age has something to do with it, as older readers prefer the daily paper, while younger readers only want it for the features or ads and coupons.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/18/2012 - 11:54 am.

    I care David, and thank you.

    I think it’s interesting and it explains something that always puzzled me. Although I think the Strib has actually gotten a little better in the last year or so, I’ve generally hated it my whole life. We ended up subscribing to the NYTs instead (but eventually got the Strib as well). At the time we (my wife and I in St. Louis Park) were amazed to find that the PiPress wouldn’t deliver to our home. We figure if the NYTs can do it, why not the PiPress? Well judging from the meager penetration the Strib has gotten it looks like it might make sense to avoid the expense of enlarging circulation area. I still think they could deliver to subscribers in the west metro though.

  7. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 10/18/2012 - 12:52 pm.

    More Maps

    I would really like to see the “critical circulation” ZIP code Star Tribune maps created during the brief but memorable reign of Publisher Par (I Am Not a Crook) Ridder way back in, oh, 2007.
    Ridder eventually was chased from the Strib by a judge’s order but not until he had brought his Pioneer Press hard drive to the Strib and, more importantly, infected the Strib with a virus that makes newspapers turn their main attention to the 2nd and 3rd-tier suburbs, chasing upscale consumers at the expense of the urban core and its concentrations of poor people and low-penetration of Neiman-Marcus gift catalogs.
    Anyone still have those maps?
    I will pay good American dollars.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 10/18/2012 - 02:05 pm.

      Nick, I’m 99 percent sure …

      … that map was from a memo published on Steve Perry’s old “Daily Mole” site. Seeing if there’s still a copy floating around.

      I remember it well. And I think it very accurately described the Strib of that crazy era.

      I have no doubt the paper still craves those sales, though since then, they have tried to give more prominence to their Minneapolis coverage with good young reporters like Eric Roper and Maya Rao.

      • Submitted by Nick Coleman on 10/18/2012 - 03:22 pm.

        Not the Reporters

        I am not questioning the intelligence or intentions of the reporters, but the priorities of the managers and profit plans of the publishers. On that level, I see little difference since the buccaneering of the Avista ownership: The paper is weighted towards profit more than towards the public (see Vikings Stadium, Conflicts of Interest). Most newspapers suffer from Ridder-itis these days. That’s not news. The surprising thing about Par Ridder’s maps was the amazing chutzpah involved in openly circulating them, and the obvious naked greed they implied: The newspaper envisioned the Twin Cities Metro as a giant doughnut, with the fat, tasty ring extending through and around the rich suburbs and exurbs, and a giant hole in the middle — the urban core where most of Minnesota’s poor, unemployed and unfortunate reside, and where it practically takes a double-homicide to roll the news trucks out of the TV station garages.
        I don’t think much has changed.
        Let’s see Ridder’s maps and see how they are in play today.

  8. Submitted by Blair Tremere on 10/18/2012 - 12:59 pm.

    Collision or collusion?

    The article correctly states that residents of the west metro [let’s focus and say first ring suburb]cannot even subscribe to the St. Paul Paper. Calls to the circulation department with the pitch that there are many business and political and regular folks like the Pioneer Press as well or even more than the StarTribune but can only get it at far-flung newstands and machines are typically met with a resounding “thud.” It seems there is a mysterious, pseudo-legal (versus marketing) reason the circulation folks themselves don’t quite get….as they receive such calls of readers who would subscribe.

    It gets really suspicious when one in west metro land can with a call or a click get daily home or office delivery of not only the Star Tribune, but also the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Investors Business Daily, etc. The point: there is no lack of a universal delivery service.

    Oh, yes, the delivery service is owned, according to some worker bees, by the Star Tribune! Often the Star Tribune comes in the same plastic bag as other papers!

    There is a lingering odor of territorial deal making wafting. Perhaps on the winds of the war.

  9. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/19/2012 - 12:02 am.

    Both papers

    Are pathetic, especially at the price

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/23/2012 - 09:14 am.

      I’m a $2 a year Press subscriber

      I consider that a fantastic value. I make that back and then some just from the coupons. I get most of my daily news from the internet but I do enjoy the feature articles in the weekend editions.

  10. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 10/23/2012 - 10:24 pm.

    I wonder…if I were to subscribe to the Strib, would they stop polluting my mailbox several times a week with that “Strib Express” and “Twin Cities Values” ad garbage? It’s worse than email spam due to the labor involved!

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