Six Virginia newspapers to reduce print days

Six local newspapers, including three from Southwest and Southside in Virginia, will cut their print publication frequency down to three days per week, starting next month. This was announced in the Sunday editions of these newspapers. They’re among the latest of at least 30 papers around the country owned by Lee Enterprises that have announced such changes.

Starting June 27, the Bristol Herald Courier, The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, the (Culpeper) Star-Exponent, the (Danville) Register & Bee, the Martinsville Bulletin, and The (Waynesboro) News Virginian will publish “expanded” print editions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and will deliver them by postal mail rather than using traditional newspaper carriers, according to the newspapers’ announcements.

All publications are currently published seven days a weeks, except for the Bulletin which doesn’t have a Saturday print edition.

“Every print day, you’ll experience a ‘Sunday’ reading experience that’s bursting with local news and opinions, investigative and watchdog journalism, personalities and profiles, sports stories that take you beyond the results of the game and a deeper look at the businesses and market leaders in our community and the world around us,” according to the papers’ announcements, which said the print editions will have more content, sections and pages than before.

In the three print editions, the papers will feature comics and crosswords for each day of every week. On the three print days, the E-Editions — digital replicas of the print editions — will mirror the print newspapers, and on the non-print days, the E-Editions will present “a condensed version of our traditional daily news report,” the newspapers said.

Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport (Iowa), acquired the newspapers from Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiary BH Media in March 2020. Lee’s other newspapers in Virginia, also acquired from BH Media in the same deal, include the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star and The (Lynchburg) News & Advance.

(Disclosure: Cardinal News reporter Matt Busse is a former Lee Enterprises employee; he most recently worked as managing editor of The News & Advance.)

As of Sunday, at least 30 of Lee Enterprises’ more than 75 daily newspapers have announced such changes. The newspapers’ announcements use mostly identical wording, with some differences to account for the individual papers’ names and the dates the changes will take effect, and sometimes highlighting history and journalistic efforts specific to their publications.

The Press of Atlantic City in New Jersey was the first to announce this in February. The Times and Democrat, in Orangeburg in South Carolina, the Dothan Eagle (in Alabama), the Waco Tribune (in Texas) and the La Crosse Tribune (in Wisconsin) are among the other newspapers to have made similar announcements in the past month.

Lee’s weekly newspapers have not been immune to changes, either. Laker Weekly’s last issue, which covered Smith Mountain Lake and was published in December, is the last one. The paper’s coverage now is part of The Roanoke Times. The weekly Washington County News’ E-Edition was last updated Jan. 11.

Lee’s daily newspapers in recent years have also ceased publishing print editions on major holidays, including Memorial Day.

The changes represent a challenge that continues to face the entire newspaper industry. As customers increasingly prefer digital media to get their news, print newspaper subscriptions continue to decrease — and as they go, so do the higher advertising and subscription revenues that print products have historically offered compared to digital subscriptions and website traffic.

In a conference call with investors May 4, following the release of Lee Enterprises’ second-quarter earnings, Tim Millage, Lee’s vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer, said the company has “been able to retain a lot more of our print subscribers and more of our print subscription revenue relative to others in the industry.”

Nonetheless, Millage said while responding to a question submitted online by an unidentified conference call attendee, the company is “seeing unit declines accelerating in 2023, resulting in revenue trends closer to what the rest of the industry has seen for a couple of years.”

“You may have seen we did announce in one of our markets to move to produce a robust, high-quality print product three days a week,” Millage said during the May 4 call, an apparent reference to The Press of Atlantic City’s February announcement. “And we’re evaluating our print products with the goal of continuing to provide our local communities with robust, high-quality local news and the best possible print product in our local markets, at the same time as managing the cash flow and these revenue streams as they mature.”

A recent article in Editor & Publisher, a trade publication focused on the news industry, addressed the potential impacts of reducing print publication frequency.

Among other sources, the article cited John Newby — a publisher, consultant and national columnist as well as the founder of 360 Media Alliance and Truly-Local — who noted that while fewer print days means lower costs for newsprint, labor and distribution, some of that savings would likely be offset by a loss of subscribers.

Newby also told Editor & Publisher that the success of a print-reduction campaign depends on a newspaper company’s communication and transparency with its readers — and what it does with the added profit.

“The real problem I see in the industry is that few actually reinvest those savings back into the product,” Newby said, according to the E&P article. “It goes to stabilize the bottom line. If the newly found revenue is not invested back into the product, all you have done is extract from your product, providing the reader with a less delightful reading experience.”