Eighteen Months In, Palm Coast Observer Retrenches Back to Once a Week
FlaglerLive | September 25, 2013
After scoring a series of successes in the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s backyard and launching an ambitious effort to go head-to-head with the twice-weekly News-Tribune a little over a year and a half ago, the Palm Coast Observer is doing what most newspapers have had to do to survive: it’s retrenching. The paper is abandoning its Wednesday and Saturday editions, and combining them into a once-a-week Thursday edition beginning next week, it announced today. The story was first reported by WNZF on Tuesday.
The Observer—a free newspaper dropped on residential driveways and available at racks around town—has a circulation of 25,000. It is increasing that circulation to 30,000 when it returns to a weekly schedule, in large part to expand deliveries in Flagler Beach.
The News-Journal, in comparison, had a total, average weekday circulation of 10,869 in Flagler County according its latest audit report by the Alliance for Audited Media (the renamed Audit Bureau of Circulation). The Alliance’s town-by-town breakdown of the News-Journal’s circulation reveal where the readers are: on weekdays, the paper has a circulation of 8,878 in Palm Coast, 1,396 in Flagler Beach, and 524 in Bunnell. Sunday circulation is slightly higher. There are some 48,000 households in the county, 35,000 of them in Palm Coast.
In late summer the News-Journal, which managed this year to stop hemorrhaging circulation (its average weekday circulation stood at 65,000 in the latest audit), had a retrenchment of a different sort: it redesigned the paper yet again, shrinking it to reduce its newsprint costs (the second-heaviest costs for any newspaper, after personnel), but also shrinking space devoted to news and information.
The News-Journal, which owns the News-Tribune, had closed its Flagler County bureau in 2009, but reopened one in January 2012—the same month the Observer launched its twice-weekly schedule—when it acknowledged that it had ceded too much of the market to its competition. Ron Wallace, the publisher who led that re-opening, however, is no longer at the News-Journal, which just named Bill Offill its third publisher in the last four years. Offill headed sales and marketing at the Houston Chronicle and became publisher of a small newspaper in Texas before taking the job in Daytona Beach.
Last September, the Observer—which is part of the Sarasota-based Observer Group, a consortium of eight papers owned by Matt Walsh, brother of Palm Coast Observer Publisher John Walsh—launched another ambitious assault on the News-Journal’s flank: it started the weekly publication of the Ormond Beach Observer, where the News-Journal circulates more heavily than in Flagler, with more than 12,000 average daily circulation. The Observer’s advertising base in the Ormond paper, however, is still Flagler-heavy.
And keeping all three editions going each week proved untenable: there is only so much advertising to go around to support print publications, and the local economy, while stirring again, is still weighed down by double-digit unemployment an an absence of vibrant, sustained activity.
“Our goal was to cram in as many headlines as possible and to be as comprehensive as possible,” an article explaining the retrenchment states in today’s edition of the Observer. “But, at the same time, the identity of the newspaper began to change to be two parts newspaper, and one part magazine. Also, the number of ads began to overwhelm the content on some of the pages. And, even when we wanted to write a longer, more in-depth profile story, we didn’t really have the room.”
The paper projects becoming “twice as thick” in future weekly editions. Walsh, in an email late Wednesday afternoon, said some advertisers had actually been “intimidated” by the twice-a-week schedule, and are now pleased to have the certainty to be in the Observer every week. At first glance it looks like we may have an overall increase in ad revenue. And lower delivery cost,” Walsh wrote. “In any business manual it is a wonderful thing to increase revenue and reduce cost at the same time.
“We continue to follow national trends of community papers. Increase in readership and revenue. We looked closely at the industry. Take the Birmingham News, they reduced the publishing schedule from seven days to three. Yet, they retained near 90% of the ad revenue. Advertisers love the reduced publishing schedules.”
David Ayres, the general manager at WNZF and host of Free For All Friday, which previews the Observer’s Saturday edition and recaps its Wednesday, said the return to once a week was a “good thing” because “it’s better for everybody—one concentrated paper versus two diffused editions, and more stuff laying on people’s driveways.” He was not surprised by the move. For all print products, he said, “it’s downsize, downsize and the expenses go up and up.”
Free For All’s format won’t change in the Observer’s regard, Ayres said. “Now Free for all Friday will give them content they can put in the next week,” he said, only half-jokingly: the paper’s Thursday edition will allow the show to invite guests featured in the stories that can then be amplified on the air. “There’s a lot to be said by listening to a person’s tone of voice versus reading a quote,” Ayres said. Meanwhile he said the paper’s place in the media spectrum locally will remain valuable as a source of community news other sources he described as “hard media” don’t provide.
Cindy Dalecki, a marketer and social media specialist who owns Marketing2Go in Palm Coast, said ink and paper continue to be an expensive proposition, but it remains an essential link in the media mix for advertisers. “A lot of people have to have that paper in their hands,” Dalecki said. “The News-Tribune is still two days a week, and they have been forever and ever.” And other local print products, such as Jan Gage’s Flagler Magazine, the bi-monthly, continue to thrive.
And while the News-Tribute continues its twice-a-week print runs, Walsh notes that it remains thin at less than 10 pages an issue. “I’ll take our page count over theirs anytime,” Walsh wrote.