Current "web exclusives" for new Union-Tribune subscribers — but rates guaranteed only eight weeks
Current “web exclusives” for new Union-Tribune subscribers — but rates guaranteed only eight weeks.

Days after his newspaper posted another sizable decline in daily circulation — to an average 66,192 copies — publisher Jeff Light said Thursday that The San Diego Union-Tribune would someday publish only once a week.

He wouldn’t say when.

Union-Tribune print circulation for the year ending Sept. 19, 2021, as reported to U.S. Postal Service

“Our plan for the Union-Tribune, like all big newspapers, calls for a digital future, with Sunday remaining in print,” he said via email Thursday. “We have robust business planning for the future of the company that we put in place back in 2017, and we have been hitting all of our marks.”

As he did last year — when average circulation fell from 104,377 to 87,834 — Light said the U-T was a “strong and profitable company.”

But if the 14.4% average annual decline over the past five years isn’t reversed, the print U-T is on track to sell 56,661 daily papers in 2022, 48,502 in 2023, 41,518 in 2024, 35,540 in 2025 and a paltry 30,422 in 2026 — all in a county with about 1.13 million households.

Light noted that the Postal Service-required annual report on print circulation that appeared in Monday’s U-T offered but a partial glimpse into the health of a 153-year-old company with a 100-person newsroom.

“Print is declining as digital grows,” he said. He cautioned not to put too much stock in digital figures kept by the Alliance for Audited Media (successor to the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

March 2021 six-month report on the Union-Tribune by Alliance for Audited Media. (PDF)

“The digital numbers in the AAM reports in general are in disarray because everyone seems to be filling them out differently…. Without impugning AAM or the people who fill out those reports, I’d just say that is not the place to look.”

According to figures provided by Light, the U-T had 48,276 digital subscribers as of Oct. 12 — with 32,564 labeled “direct-paid.” (In addition, anyone who gets the print edition gets a free digital subscription.)

He said the U-T “enewspaper,” an online replication of the print edition, is used by 29% of digital-only subscribers and 8% of print subscribers.

Nonetheless, the U-T website boasts: “Today, Union-Tribune publications reach more than 96 percent of San Diego County households each week,” including visitors to and readers of nine community newspapers, Night+Day weekly entertainment supplement, lifestyle magazine Pacific San Diego and Spanish-language weekly Hoy San Diego.

In March 2020, University of Texas journalism professor Hsiang Iris Chyi and the University of Illinois’ Yee Man Margaret Ng published a 23-page study in Digital Journalism titled “Still Unwilling to Pay: An Empirical Analysis of 50 U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Subscription Results.”

One of the papers studied was the Union-Tribune (once among the top 25 papers in America by circulation).

The authors conclude that print editions outperform digital offerings in usage, engagement, preference, emotional attachment and paying intent — “all by a wide margin.”

They also note studies that even though seven-day home delivery prices more than doubled from 2008 to 2016, “demand remained inelastic in most cases, suggesting that newspaper readers’ attachment to the legacy product is stronger than expected.”

Indeed, the researchers estimated that the U-T “digital replica” brought in $3.34 million in a recent year compared with print-edition revenues of $30.8 million.

Study: “Still Unwilling to Pay: An Empirical Analysis of 50 U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Subscription Results.” (PDF)

“The print edition, at a much higher price, remains the most consumed format and the primary revenue driver for the vast majority of newspapers,” they wrote. “In contrast, attaining digital subscribers remains extremely difficult.”

Given the price gap between print and digital editions, they said, encouraging high-paying readers to switch from print to digital is “exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes.”

Citing AAM reports from 2019 and earlier, Professor Chyi told Times of San Diego that U-T “print subscription revenue still is the major/dominating revenue source despite that the print edition’s performance is relatively weak (compared with other metro dailies I studied).”

“As a result,” she said, “it’s probably unrealistic to cease the print edition, which still generates most of the revenue.”

According to AAM reports, the U-T basic annual home daily delivery price rose from $289 in 2017 to $832 in 2018, then to $1,040 in 2019.

“In fact, most print readers are amazingly loyal to a product that charges a lot more!” she said.

Indeed, a September 2015 story by U-T readers rep Adrian Vore was headlined “Readers still passionate about print.”

He cited U-T reader demographics: “Print readers are primarily older, about half the readership is 55 and above. The 18-to-24 group represent the lowest readership at around 8 percent.”

Vore wrote that he frequently received calls from readers who say they have subscribed for 30 or 40, even 50 years.

“They say they read the paper from front to back every morning with their coffee,” he said. “It’s a daily ritual.”

But a former U-T newsroom veteran predicts an end to that daily rite.

“We all know that the U-T we know today, a daily printed newspaper, will soon cease to exist,” said the veteran who didn’t want to be identified. Even so, “The digital U-T needs a lot of work.”

The former employee cited “today’s proof: Why didn’t the U-T send readers to the memo on 101 Ash by directing readers to it on the website? In order to build readership, the U-T also can offer readers something others lack: coverage of local political delegations in Sacramento and DC.”

The veteran asked what U-T management was doing to ease the transition to become a digital news leader in San Diego — for readers and advertisers.

“The answer, best I can tell, is nothing,” the source said. “Newspaper readers receive no ‘training’ on how best to use the website. They need to be directed to the site. Instead the attitude is ‘our newspaper subscribers are all old and will be dead in a few years, so why bother.’”

The veteran would like to see supplementary information, such as court documents and government reports, posted along with stories on the website.

“This is a surprise because Jeff Light, when he was hired, was described as a digital expert,” said the source. “The U-T’s website should work hand in glove with the newspaper. And it is not a leader in informing San Diegans of breaking news. That has been left to TV.”

But the professors said the newspaper industry should recognize that digital transformation is “not a panacea and should address its crisis through audience research on news consumers’ response to legacy and emerging news products.”

How much does the U-T charge for its print product?

The U-T’s current “web-exclusive” introductory rates include $5 a week for 7-day-a-week print subscriptions and $3 a week for Sunday-only delivery (all print subscribers gets free access to digital news, including the U-T’s paywalled website). But the rate was guaranteed only a limited time.

“Usually, it’s for eight weeks,” said a U-T customer service rep.

After first offering daily delivery for $7 a week, the rep said I could have the paper for $4.99 a week — guaranteed for 13 weeks.

After 13 weeks?

“We don’t have the rate yet,” she said. “But we will be sure to send you advance notice before the service expires.”