Read the T-shirt
Everyone on the staff of The Tidewater News has a T-shirt like the one pictured here. They're encouraged to wear them around town in Franklin, Va.
When people see "Have you" in the large letters on the front, they almost always want to see "Subscribed to The Tidewater News?" on the back, says Tony Clark, publisher and vice president of Tidewater Publications. Clark tries to wear his T-shirt once a week. He has sold two subscriptions on the spot so far.
"It sparks the conversation," Clark said. "That's what we're attempting to do. If nothing else, we're trying to spark the conversation about the relevance of the newspaper."
Clark cheerfully admits that he "stole that idea from someone else" at last year's SNPA Carmage Walls Leadership Forum. (This year's forum is Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C., http://snpa.org/stories/Leadership-Forum,163306.) It's part of a long-term strategy to improve circulation for the three-day-a-week newspaper.
Current circulation is about 3,500. Tidewater Publications is part of Boone Newspapers Inc.
"We're doing well," Clark said. "As a company, we generated more revenue this past fiscal year than we did the year before, even while print circulation is down slightly. The product is healthy. It's just a matter of getting it into the hands of as many readers as possible."
The T-shirts were passed out to employees as part of a one-day half-price subscription promotion that took place on Oct. 20. Although that one day only netted about a dozen new subscriptions, Clark isn't discouraged. In a small market, that's a one-day circulation increase of about one-third of 1 percent. The promotion will run again although a timetable has not been set, he said.
In the past, The Tidewater News has been known to shut down for a few hours while every staff member calls recently lapsed subscribers to ask why they dropped the paper and if they would like to renew.
"Sometimes it might be a service issue with delivery. Sometimes we find they had merely not paid attention to their bill and it lapsed. Sometimes they say [the subscriber] is dead," Clark said.
An aging readership points up the need to attract younger readers, the goal of newspapers and media companies in general. And while the website audience is up (www.tidewaternews.com), the site isn't the revenue generator that the printed paper is.
"We've worried about circulation for a long time, but I think like a lot of newspapers we probably didn't act on it soon enough," Clark said. "But we're to the point now that we're willing to do everything and anything that we can to raise awareness of our brand.
"We have a whole new generation of potential readers that maybe have never picked up a newspaper before. We're reaching out to the schools. We're doing a lot more in terms of news content to try to interest younger readers."
The paper created a weekly section of school news, largely items and photos submitted by teachers and administrators. It may be an item about a school field trip submitted with a photo, but kids and their parents will want to see it, Clark said. By design, the school news is not put online.
News coverage capitalizes on a market that has no direct competition. The news and sports staff must be mindful of that fact, Clark said.
"We're the only ones covering local news, local government. We're the only ones covering local high school sports."
The Tidewater News doesn't have a large promotion budget or a magic bullet. It's simply trying to provide the news readers want and improve circulation.
"We're just looking for ways to be creative as we possibly can be," Clark said.
For more information, contact Publisher Tony Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at email@example.com. Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.