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How will switching to postal delivery change newspapers, reporting, and readers’ habits?

FILE - An employee sorts newspapers for delivery at a distribution center in Liberty Township near Youngstown, Ohio, on Aug. 6, 2019.
Tony Dejak
FILE - An employee sorts newspapers for delivery at a distribution center in Liberty Township near Youngstown, Ohio, on Aug. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

More and more newspapers across the country are turning to postal delivery of their print editions to cut down on distribution costs.

That includes the Peoria Journal Star, which started its use of mail delivery Monday.

But how might this switch change the news content, and how will subscribers adjust to getting their papers later?

Tim Franklin, the director of the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism says there’s more to this pivot to postal delivery than just the bottom-line dollars: A change in the way people get their information.

“For more than a century, print newspapers were the vehicle by which local news – breaking local news – was delivered. Now breaking local news is delivered largely online, or on smartphones, or through social media or newsletters or other platforms,” Franklin said. “So I think this also reflects the kind of historic pivot that’s being made from print to digital.

“So as a result of that, the printed newspaper becomes something different. It's not breaking news so much as it is providing context and enterprise, original, local news and information that isn't of a breaking news nature.”

Franklin says that switching to mail delivery, combined with some publishers no longer printing seven days a week, creates the need for an overhaul of what the physical copy of newspapers provide.

“I think that publishers and editors are recognizing that the print edition, in some ways, is becoming more magazine-like,” he said. “It's becoming more of a vehicle to provide in-depth information and to provide things like listings that people can carry around with them during the week. It's becoming a little more of a coffee table-type product, if you will, as opposed to this thing that you rip open out of the bag and read the lead headline for whatever the latest breaking news is. So I think the switch is going to require, and is requiring, publishers to remake the print newspaper fundamentally.”

Franklin says that some news consumers might view these changes as a de-emphasis of the printed product.

“I think it's going to be critical for publishers and editors to communicate with their audiences exactly what they're doing with this: that in the process of trying to remain sustainable over the long term, and in recognition of the fact that how people consume news has changed significantly, that they're having to change along with those changing behaviors by consumers,” he said. “So the print product is becoming something different.

“But I think the publishers and editors who switch to mail distribution and just keep doing the same thing they've been doing for decades may not be successful. Because yes, it's a change in the distribution of newspapers, but it needs to be a more existential change in what a print newspaper is.”

Tim Franklin speaks to a reporter on Zoom in front of a Northwestern University background.
Tim Franklin, Director of the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University's Medill journalism school.

Franklin said postage rates have been increasing and that is likely to continue, but he believes newspaper publishers see the savings in labor costs as more of a benefit than any rising mail rates.

“In a lot of ways, it's not an appealing job for many people to get up super-early in the morning, or the middle of the night in some cases, and do those home deliveries,” he said. “Newspapers have had trouble finding labor to do that work, and the labor that they are finding is becoming increasingly expensive. So there's no question that this switch to postal delivery is being driven in part, or in large part by cost savings, and in some cases, pretty significant cost savings.”

While advocating for newspapers to rethinking their printed product from top to bottom, Franklin admits that can be a challenge for newsrooms that have continued to see the size of their reporting staffs shrink.

“There's no question that's happening, and it's happening at an alarming rate across the country. I think it's going to be a matter of using the staffs that are remaining in different ways and in better ways,” he said. “It could mean that you’re having freelancers do more kind of commodity news or standard fare kind of news, and then having your full-time staff writers work on more intensive, immersive, in-depth stories. That could be one thing.

“I also think that AI (artificial intelligence) is moving very, very quickly. Already, publishers are experimenting with using artificial intelligence to write basic stories for them, whether it's meeting covers, whether it's high school sports, or whatever the case might be. Right now, I think we're a little ways off from publishers being able to completely rely on AI for those sorts of things, but AI is coming. So that also might help a little newsrooms become more efficient and be a tool that they can use for some of the basics.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.