"Newspapers offered a mixed story as new data showed a circulation decline industrywide — by alarming rates at some papers — while visits to their websites grew."
—USA Today, 2006
Unless I start my Sunday by reading a real newspaper—the kind you can spill coffee on without frying a keyboard—I get cranky. Which is why reading about declining newspaper subscriptions worries me. What sort of wretch will I become if real Sunday newspapers go extinct?
But then I think of The Sunday City, and I realize there's hope. The Sunday City is a weekly from my hometown, and it's one of the few papers today gaining print subscribers. Let me tell you about it.
Like all proper home-delivered Sunday newspapers, The Sunday City thuds onto your porch in the darkness of early morning.
But as soon as you open your door to retrieve it, you can tell this paper is different. It's sealed in a weatherproof envelope. And when you tear it open, more surprises follow.
What slides out are the five sections of the newspaper—each a separate magazine the size of a slim Rolling Stone. You see lots of color from wonderfully detailed and clever illustrations. And there's the smell of fresh newsprint—and a whiff of peppermint.
But the paper's sensual charms are only part of its appeal. The reporting is scrupulous, full of curiosity and fun to read. The paper's choice of what to cover is…well, that's hard to summarize. You'll get a better sense of the paper—and some clues about its success—if I take you on a quick section-by-section tour of last week's issue.
The Sunday City. This is the flagship section. At its heart is a cluster of articles and info-graphics about a timely local policy choice. These are pitched to the reader as hypothetical policymaker, and are designed to provide the background needed to make an informed policy decision. Last week's focus: "Do Job Creation Tax Credits Create Jobs?"
Sounds dull, doesn't it? In many local papers, it would be. But this isn't your standard local news fare.
You are treated to a juicy story about lobbyists and politicians. But also you get what amounts to an entertaining mini-documentary in policy analysis. You learn about why job tax credits are hard for politicians to resist, about what effect the credits have on the city budget, and about how they impact labor market dynamics.
After you're done reading, you know something meaningful about things that matter to your hometown—and that's satisfying.
The Peppermint Pages. I grab this section first. It's shamelessly devoted to amusement—and, yes, its pages are peppermint-scented.
Last week's section featured a true story about a brother and sister who—as kids twenty years ago—got lost for days in tunnels beneath the city. There's an installment of a graphic novel to read, odd facts and tips on how to do things like cheat at cards or pronounce Kwakiutl words. And, of course, there are lots of comic strips, cartoons and drawings—some of which local readers contribute.
The Shopping Review. This section is like a local Consumer Reports. The big article in last week's paper was: "Department Stores with the Best (and Worst) Customer Service." There's a store review by a shopping critic. My favorite feature is "Commercial De-Constructor," which scrutinizes the factual claims and marketing strategy behind commercials.
Playpeople. You might call this the arts and entertainment section—except that it doesn't cover celebrities, art exhibits, books, movies or television. What readers find are articles about how to spend leisure time actively—usually featuring local examples. The best article last week was: "Record Mom Singing in the Shower: Using Your MP3 Player to Create an Audio Family Album."
The Field Guide. This section is an illustrated guide to features of the city's natural or human-made environment. Last week, the section served as an architectural guide to common house styles. My favorite guide so far provided a detailed tour of the infrastructure involved in flushing a toilet—from the bathroom to street pipes to sewage treatment plants.
So, what explains The Sunday City's success in attracting subscribers while other papers are losing them?
The best explanation—as you've probably anticipated—is that it's easy to pad subscriptions for imaginary newspapers.
But what if The Sunday City did exist, and was actually growing a big readership? What might explain the paper's success?
I wouldn't be surprised to read an account like this in a real newspaper:
"According to a survey, subscribers said they sought out the paper's local coverage, calling it 'engaging,' 'meaningful' and 'useful.' The survey also found that the look, feel and smell of a newspaper is 'very important' to readers, especially on Sundays."
Note: This was originally published in the Lexington Herald Leader's opinion pages on Dec. 26,
Reader question: Do you really like reading your local daily newspaper? How about any of the weeklies?