Two options to increase circulation

Chip Hutcheson

Oct 1, 2023

That same conclusion could be reached by newspaper folks when considering how they can reverse the circulation decline that faces many newspapers across the land. It’s time to learn a different way.

The guy was driving home from work when he was pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. Three days later, he was stopped again at the same place by the same cop and got the same ticket.

“So, have you learned anything?” asked the cop.

“Yes, I have,” he said. “I’ve learned it’s time to find a different way home from work.”

That same conclusion could be reached by newspaper folks when considering how they can reverse the circulation decline that faces many newspapers across the land. It’s time to learn a different way.

First, let’s consider single–copy sales. Gone are the days that you can put newspaper racks at numerous locations. Theft and rack maintenance proved to be major problems that resulted in fewer locations and therefore fewer sales. The mushrooming trend to use credit cards rather than having change for a newspaper rack hastened the single–copy demise.

A decade ago, many businesses were glad to offer the local newspaper for sale, operating under the premise that people might enter the business to buy a paper and possibly buy some other merchandise, as well. Few businesses do that these days. And if they do, the papers aren’t prominently displayed.

The downward trend for single–copy sales is not a new phenomenon. Our newspaper saw that decline become noticeable around 2014, and we never figured out why. I talked with newspaper owners from various states at NNA gatherings and learned we shared the same problem.

Many have raised the white flag for single–copy sales. Digital access to newspapers put the final nail in that coffin.

That leaves two options to increase circulation — annual print subscriptions paid in advance and digital options.

Most newspapers these days offer a combination of print and digital. The common practice seems to be one price gets you both options. Some opt to price them separately. And the prices run the gamut from low to high. There are still a few holdouts who don’t offer a digital option, but as postal costs continue to soar and service problems intensify, it appears readers will increasingly demand digital access.

Every newspaper should review its website and ask if it makes subscribing an easy task. Many sites are woefully weak in doing that. Some don’t have a subscribe tab. Don’t make subscribing a challenge to readers.

Part of the challenge of keeping circulation numbers up is that in many cases, there is no one charged with that task. Newspapers used to send out a series of renewal notices, but lack of staff and cost of postage have seen that decline. Many newspapers opt to run ads to educate readers to look at the label on their paper and be sure to renew.

In past decades, the task of building circulation was for everyone working at the paper. From reporters to ad salespeople to production workers, all were trained to ask people if they subscribed. If they didn’t, the employee would encourage them to start a subscription. It was an “everybody sells” business philosophy. Encourage those on your staff to be alert to those opportunities.

As newspapers fight circulation decline, a handy strategy is to talk to advertisers about readership, not circulation. The typical statistic is that 2.3 people read a copy of the newspaper. It sounds much better to say that 2,300 people read the newspaper each week rather than the circulation is 1,000.

The circulation topic can lead to some pessimistic comments. Perhaps you’re saying “amen” after reading the above remarks. But people can be persuaded to buy a printed copy or read your digital version if you have strong local content.

That is a no-brainer, but quite often, reduced newsroom staffs lead to stories — front page ones at that — which are not locally oriented. We’ve touted this strong local content issue in previous Pub Aux articles, but it bears repeating. You gain readers by telling stories of local people and events and putting local pictures in the paper. Papers might not have a dedicated photographer, but utilize your community to provide photos. Most everyone has a cellphone, and those photos are suitable for newspaper usage.

Social media can be your friend and your enemy. There are few “scoops” today because if something noteworthy happens, there are those eager to post it on Facebook. Check social media posts for story ideas. Find content that is relevant and unique by always have an open ear to what you hear from friends, neighbors and family members.


If you want to hold steady or even increase circulation, publish a paper that is strong on local content. Have a website that offers an e-edition, but put it behind a paywall. People won’t hesitate to pay for content that is valuable to them.

Chip Hutcheson is the retired publisher of The Times Leader in Princeton, Kentucky. He was NNA president in 2015. He currently serves as a content strategist for Kentucky Today, the online news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.