A message to our readers

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

Last July we announced to our readers that the Juneau Empire would be switching to morning delivery sometime after the first of the year. At the time we were struggling with delivery problems and then suffered through a six-week stretch without a circulation manager. Many of you suffered along with us. We could not commit to a firm date for the morning changeover until our delivery system and customer service improved.

It has been a long and difficult road, but under the leadership of our new circulation director, Bob Jacobson, and help of his staff and our youth and adult carriers, great progress has been made toward providing quality customer service to our subscribers. The past six months of delivery have been rocky for many of you and we deeply appreciate the patience and understanding you have generously shown us.

This past week the Empire fielded the fewest delivery complaints we have seen in many years. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident we can rise to the morning challenge.

We have chosen April 7 as the target date for making the switch to morning delivery. Since we first made the announcement we have had an active dialogue with our readers. Most our readers are comfortable with change but naturally some are resistant. It is human nature to resist change especially when facing a change in such a well-established and personal part of one's life as the ritual of reading the daily paper.

The decision to make the switch to morning was made after years of careful consideration and examination of the advantages and disadvantages.

In the last scientifically valid, in-depth survey of Juneau residents performed by Beldon Research in 1998, questions about reader acceptance of morning delivery of the Juneau Empire were asked. The study revealed 71 percent of the respondents fell into the "definitely would read" and "probably would read" classes.

When compared to other markets around the U.S., this is a very strong level of acceptance. In virtually every North American market served by a morning and evening paper, the morning paper has prospered while the afternoon paper has either faded or failed.

Ultimately a change of this magnitude must make sound business sense while providing strong benefits to our readers.

So why is the Empire so sure Juneau is ready for a morning newspaper? Aside from the research data, these seven compelling reasons provide the basis for the decision.

1) The media landscape has changed. In the past decade we have seen a dramatic evolution in the method of delivery and consumption of breaking news via electronic media. Technology has driven this change. We now get sound bites of breaking stories instantaneously by TV, radio and the Internet from a growing legion of 24-hour-a-day news outlets.

Since newspapers are published once a day, they cannot presume to be effective disseminators of breaking news.

A newspaper's great strength is and always has been in providing more facts and detail along with a more thorough analysis of the stories of the day in a package that is portable and accessible at any time throughout the day.

So, if you accept that more detail, broader stories and analysis and portability are important to you, the time of delivery is not necessarily a determining factor of the value of newspapers. Of course, the paper carries far more than just the news stories of the day. The pages of opinion, letters, weather, comics, classifieds, police and court record, sports statistics and all-important crossword puzzles are just as fresh at the end of the day as at the beginning.

2) Lifestyle changes over the past decade indicate an increasing number of people no longer have as much time to spend with the news in the evenings. Today's typical family is very busy with two working spouses and children engaged in a host of activities competing for their time. One indicator of this social trend is the decline of the audience for network evening news programs. Mornings may be just as busy but a paper delivered at the start of the day is available to read at any time during the day.

3) Morning publication provides improvement in content. Journalism researchers Byron Scott and Guido Stempel list those as "up to date weather forecast for the day, coverage of last night's city council meetings, stories and scores of national sports events, stories and scores of high school sports events, and stories and photos of local, national, world and state events that happen late in the day or evening, including local police and fire department activity." Currently, by the time the Empire gets an important local story in front of our readers its freshness has waned.

4) Advertisers derive greater benefits from morning newspapers. Beginning April 7, the Empire will be delivered about nine hours earlier in the day, providing much greater shelf life while placing advertising information closer to the opportunity to engage consumers.

5) One of the most compelling advantages of morning delivery is the greatly lengthened window to get the paper delivered. Moving the delivery cycle to the hours between 1:30 and 6 a.m. stretches our window from 2 1/2 hours to 4 1/2 hours at a time when there is no traffic, thus improving delivery efficiency and safety. Juneau's unique weather and climate make it one the most difficult places on Earth to deliver a dry, on-time newspaper. This longer window will result in more predictable and reliable delivery cycles and add a cushion to recover from the inevitable technical, equipment and weather related delays.

6) A morning paper in Juneau will also enjoy a broader single-copy reader audience by being widely available in restaurants, break rooms, hotel rooms, the airport and vending and merchant locations. An afternoon paper is disadvantaged by a very short shelf life. The morning paper will benefit from extended availability throughout the day, engaging readers we now miss. The early morning press time will also allow us to circulate the paper in a timely way to communities throughout Southeast Alaska that we cannot now reach with a fresh newspaper.

Students and teachers participating in the Newspaper in Education program will enjoy a more "current" discussion of current events with papers delivered at the start of the school day instead of reading yesterday's paper.

7) Morning dailies dominate in Alaska. Most of the other major dailies in Alaska long ago made the successful switch to morning publication. Anchorage made the change in 1980, Ketchikan and Kenai in 1986 and Fairbanks in 1992. In each case, these newspapers, along with hundreds of morning papers throughout North America, realized improvement in the number of readers and in the length of time readers spend with the newspaper.

Obviously, there are also disadvantages to putting out a morning paper, not the least of which is the challenge it imposes on our staff. Our news, circulation, mailroom, press and pre-press departments are dealing with sweeping changes. I am proud of the level of professionalism and dedication our managers and staff members have shown throughout the planning process.

We are concerned, too, about the length of time the paper will be exposed to the elements. The morning papers will be wrapped in thicker plastic and we will continue to put up the blue plastic delivery tubes everywhere we can to keep the papers off the ground. The tubes are free to our subscribers.

Another disadvantage is that it is more costly to publish a morning newspaper, but the benefits outweigh the added investment.

Over the past three years we have added many improvements to the Empire enabled through the support of our readers and advertisers. This historic transition will strengthen Juneau's newspaper as it has every other community newspaper that has adopted the morning habit.

In the coming weeks we will be doing our best to keep you informed of our efforts and as always welcome your thoughts and concerns. To aid in the information effort will soon release a section of our Web site devoted to questions and answers about the change to morning.

We hope you will keep an open mind and give morning a chance to win you over. You may discover that you like starting the day off with a cup of coffee and a dose of enlightenment. If not, the paper will be waiting for you when you are ready to read it.

Don Smith is publisher of the Empire.

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