When Seattle Times Co. president Alan Fisco kicked off 2019 with an editorial reflection on the past year, he listed lessons the news organization had learned and how he planned to leverage those lessons in the New Year. Among those initiatives was a promise to provide better customer service to subscribers, including better, more reliable in-home delivery. Specifically, Fisco cited a shortage in carriers. It's not an anecdotal case for the Seattle Times. In fact, other publishers are finding a shortage in carriers ultimately harms the newspaper brand.
Then, in late December, a malware attack hit the Los Angeles Times and Tribune Publishing papers across the country, delaying weekend deliveries and "(infecting) systems crucial to the news production and printing process"--representing an entirely new threat to news organizations and how they deliver papers.
Speaking with E&P, Fisco went into his editorial a little further.
"In the Seattle marketplace, we're dealing with a minimum wage of $15 an hour that's being phased in. That puts a strain on carrier compensation and profile levels," he explained. "At the same time those things are happening, our volumes are declining, so the routes are less dense. A typical route has fewer customers, and when there are fewer customers, there are fewer profits for the carriers. It's a squeeze."
Delivery is, admittedly, something that keeps Fisco up at night.
"I worry that the cost of delivery becomes so incredibly expensive that we've got to reexamine our frequency and how we're delivering," he said. That's a reality that we're going to be facing, maybe sooner than some people think."
Fisco isn't sitting passively on his hands as all this happens though. The newspaper has changed its profit structure for distribution partners. It was an expensive endeavor, but one he believes will pay off.
The second countermeasure Fisco implemented is in route restructuring. The routes are longer, but that incentivizes carriers. That may sound like a simple fix, but that also presents a production challenge. Longer routes take more time, but customers still expect their newspaper at the doorstep before their first sip of morning brew. Customer satisfaction will not be sacrificed, Fisco vowed.
"I know other papers that are going to press earlier in order to design larger, longer routes, but they're dealing with the same issue," he said. 'We've gone to press a little early, but nothing significant. I think that's something that we'll have to be looking at over the next year to 18 months--taking a real hard look at our close times in the newsroom."
At the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana, a lack of carriers has forced the office staff at the newspaper to "pitch in" to help with deliveries. The staff published a letter to the readers in October 2018 offering an explanation for the "down routes."
"Approximately 20 percent of our readers and subscribers have no contracted carrier assigned to their delivery route," it read.
As Fisco pointed out in his editorial, the need is pervasive among small, mid- and major-market titles. The Denver Post is advertising for carriers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio is too. Even as the Washington Post spent millions on a Super Bowl commercial, the company continued to search for carriers to get its printed newspaper to paying customers.