Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Free Newspapers

I've been meaning to post for a while about free newspapers. (I've been meaning to post about a lot of things for a while but it's been a busy semester. You can tell the semester is almost over since I'm blogging to procrastinate grading.)

I am basically addicted to the printed newspaper. We subscribe to our daily paper, the Post-Gazette, 7 days a week. We also take the New York Times on Sunday. (I thought the terminology should be as quaint as the practice.) We subscribe to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. And I've been known to buy the Washington Post if I go grocery shopping on Sunday. I like the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal and will often put down a dollar for that newspaper on Fridays (although I try not to think about what portion of that dollar is paying the salaries of their editorial writers). A happy Sunday on vacation in Deep Creek, Maryland is one in which I can buy a Post-Gazette, a Post, a Times, and a Baltimore Sun. A Sunday in the Berkshires when I can pick up a Berkshire Eagle, a Times, and a Boston Globe is pretty satisfying too.

I pick up the City Paper every week and the Pitt News every day that I'm on campus.

And I have often suggested that major dailies should make themselves basically available for free. (I would keep a charge for delivery of the paper.) When free wireless is available across the land, nobody will buy newspapers.

So why I am not so excited about the proliferation of free daily newspapers in major cities? It started a few years ago with the "Metro" paper, a European import that started in Philadelphia and has spread elsewhere. The Washington Post now has it's own free daily and is in competition with a free paper in DC called the Examiner which has a sister paper in San Francisco. And right here in Three River City, we have the "TribPM."

The TribPM is a bit different from the others: For one, it's published in Pittsburgh, not exactly a growing media market and so isn't a defensive measure against potential incursion by the Metro or Examiner chains. It really is an afternoon paper and doesn't hit the streets until mid-day. It's published by the rather conservative Tribune-Review, but doesn't seem to take any kind of political line.

In its apolitical mix of celebrity gossip and somewhat vapid "lifestyle" information, however, its content seems pretty typical of the free dailies.

I am so addicted to the printed word that I will pick up a free paper--on the Washingon Metro; on Septa in Philadelphia; waiting for the bus in Pittsburgh. And I will read it. And I do understand the business model of these papers. Pay very little for content, paper, and ink. Pay out for a distribution system. Rake in advertising dollars.

But I always feel like I've wasted my time after I've read these papers: if I have already read the local daily over breakfast, I learn nothing new in terms of national or international news. The TribPM, as an afternoon paper, does have some news that hasn't made the morning paper, but there isn't usually anything in there that I can't wait to hear about until the next morning. There is some celebrity gossip in the TribPM that I wouldn't find in the Post-Gazette (or for that matter in the morning Tribune-Review), but I can certainly live without that.

A few weeks ago, the TribPM started showing up on my front lawn (er, front weed patch). This was the final straw: if I'm going to read it, I'm going to read it for the 10 minutes I'm waiting for the bus--I don't need it or want it once I'm home! And when we came back from a trip to find 3 days worth of free afternoon paper in front of our house, I realized I had to take action. So I called the office and asked that they stopped sending it. And they said yes and they did. (This may be the most surprising thing.)

I wish, though, that I had stayed on the line a bit longer to ask some questions:
--why did they think people would want this at home?
--doesn't home delivery add to the costs in a way that detracts from the simplicity of the business model?
--how many papers are they distributing to houses and how many "opt-out" calls have they gotten since you started?