Catherine Mayhew, executive of the Nashville City Paper, outlined the very different business model that has made the free daily newspaper surprisingly successful since its launch in November 2000, during a talk to journalism students at Belmont University today.
Mayhew, who joined The City Paper in January 2001 after having served as an assistant managing editor at the rival Tennessean for seven years, says the traditional model of newspapers is an old model that hasn’t changed with the times. She also described how traditional newspapers inflate their circulation figures.
“The climate in which newspapers operate has changed but newspapers have not changed with the times,” says Mayhew.
Traditional newspapers spend huge amounts of money to gain and retain subscribers, and huge amounts of money to pay carriers to drive the paper long distances to throw it on people’s front lawns, but people today don’t have time to read the paper at home and subscription rates are falling.
Some of the tricks papers use to inflate their subscriber stats include providing free papers that show up on your front porch for several weeks, “and then they send you a letter asking you if you want to subscribe.” If you don’t subscribe, the paper still counts you as a paid subscriber even though you never subscribed. Another trick: selling papers to retailers at a steep discount, and counting all of them as paid subscriptions even if many of them aren’t sold to readers and are thrown away.
Mayhew noted that some big papers, including New York’s Newsday, have been caught inflating their circulation figures, and predicted that “other newspaper companies are going to get caught doing the same thing.” The Securities and Exchange Commission “has sent letters to every major newspaper company asking them to explain” their circulation counting practices.
“At the core of the new newspaper rev is a simple premise – we don’t want more we want less,” says Mayhew. “In the Internet age we are used to getting information quickly. We can access information where we want to get it when we want to get it.”
“Today’s readers don’t want to pay for news,” she said, adding that “from the failing circulation figures at major newspapers, some papers are realizing that.”
The City Paper “is based on the premise that people want their news free and they want it local, local, local.”
While the paper has wire-service content, the paper maintains its local focus by hiring reporters and editors who live in Nashville, while big “chain” papers often rotate reporters from city to city. “We made a decision at the beginning to hire people who live here.”
The paper also maintains a different distribution model: the paper is free, and made available in office buildings and other high-traffic areas. “What we did was put papers where people go. We let you pick it up where you want to pick it up when you want to read it.”
In addition to working at The City Paper and The Tennessean, Mayhew previously held management or reporting posts at The Reno-Gazette Journal, The Charlotte Observer and The Tampa Tribune, and also spent six years in television news at WBTV in Charlotte, as an anchor and later as assistant news director.
Mayhew’s talk at Belmont was sponsored by the New Century Journalism program’s Speakers Series. The Speakers Series brings top journalists and new-media experts to campus to discuss trends and issues in media. The Speakers Series brings former Tennessean editor and publisher John Seigenthaler to campus on Monday, March 28, for a talk on the First Amendment at 10 a.m. in the Massey Boardroom, fourth floor of the Massey Business Center.