Beyond Print Toolkit: Geographic distribution of print subscribers

Reducing the delivery footprint can be one way to make significant savings from print reduction.

By Richard E. Brown

June 27, 2024

Two hands drop geo-location pins on a cream background
Accogliente Design / Shutterstock

There will inevitably become a point in any organization’s print-to-digital transition when it is no longer profitable to continue to distribute print to certain geographic areas. Reducing the delivery footprint can be one way to make significant savings from print reduction. Publications will need to decide whether they want to eliminate print in certain areas altogether, reduce print to only certain days, or make a complete shift to digital. 

The process requires a balanced blend of innovation and gradual adaptation, with a steadfast focus on putting subscribers first. Recognizing varying comfort levels with digital platforms is crucial, and tailoring strategies to these preferences not only aids in subscriber retention but also allows for targeted acquisition efforts, optimized content delivery, and diverse revenue streams. This approach fosters inclusivity by respecting the nuances of different subscriber segments based on location.

The essentials

If there are outlying areas or other nearby cities where you’ve historically delivered your newspapers that are no longer financially viable, the key savings will be from changes to your delivery network. 

The major expenses of delivering papers to a certain area include sending trucks full of printed newspapers from the printing plant to warehouses, called depots, where delivery drivers pick them up to take them to individual homes and retail locations. The drivers going to retail locations also collect revenue from the number of copies the seller sold the day before and also any unsold copies of the previous paper. They then bring both back to the depot. 

To understand how much you’ll save by eliminating these routes, you’ll need to calculate the costs of maintaining a delivery fleet and the costs of labor.

Another option for maintaining print delivery in an area where it is no longer feasible to maintain a delivery network is to send papers via the United States Postal Service, which would mean that subscribers would receive their newspapers with their mail delivery. As a result, subscribers would not receive their papers first thing in the morning and there would be no Sunday delivery. Check out the postal delivery section for more on how to work with the USPS. 

Beyond eliminating costs, you’ll need to retain as many subscribers as you can and also transition them to digital products. Here are some details to consider as you re-imagine the geographic footprint of your organization: 

Digital readiness assessment

The next pivotal step in tailoring your print-to-digital transition strategy based on the geographical location of your print subscribers is to assess your audience’s likelihood to become digital subscribers. How many of your print subscribers in that area are already accessing your digital platforms? For example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution regularly encouraged subscribers to increase their usage of digital products long before any form of print reduction was announced. 

In addition, it may be helpful to survey sections of your readership to understand their digital skill level and aptitude. Assess the audience’s proficiency in utilizing digital devices for content consumption, particularly in outlying locations where reliable internet service or access to digital platforms may be challenging.  Understand whether simplicity or sophistication is more fitting, aligning with the preferences of your current subscribers. For a seamless transition from print to digital, having a well-crafted platform that aligns with your audience’s digital capabilities is crucial, fostering engagement and maintaining their subscriber loyalty to your organization.

Content adaptation

The next step in this process involves understanding the need for content adaptation for your print subscribers based on geographical locations during your transition. Much like a hardware store strategically placing gardening seeds at the front during gardening season, tactically positioning content is crucial. This strategic placement ensures that the content aligns with the preferences and outlook of current print subscribers — and will encourage them to remain subscribers as the transition to digital occurs. For instance, The Philadelphia Inquirer found that its suburban readers were particularly interested in dining and sports coverage, so it is investing in those coverage areas to retain and grow its subscriber base outside of the city of Philadelphia.  Making in-demand  products easily accessible through a simple and clearly communicated navigation button or option helps create  an experience that aligns more closely  with your subscribers.

Understanding the geographical concentration of your audience and the type of digital content that is relevant to them can also help you tailor effective retention efforts. For example, if you possess a detailed calendar of events, locally relevant information, or unique insights into popular attractions, integrating these insights into your coverage amplifies the value of your platform as a resource, aligning with the specific interests and needs of each geographical segment. Elevating your platform as a localized resource enhances retention and growth opportunities during the print-to-digital transformation, solidifying the foundation for a thriving digital readership.

Monetization strategy

When evaluating subscriber or reader revenue for your current print subscriber base and devising a monetization strategy, the first consideration is whether the new digital platform will replace the existing print product or serve as a valuable add-on. Assessing and projecting the adoption rate will allow a careful evaluation of the associated costs for developing and maintaining the digital platform. This evaluation, in turn, guides the pricing structure and potential incentives to help current print subscribers move to digital. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, provided readers in certain geographies with iPads that they could use to access AJC coverage for the duration of their subscription.

Historical context and cultural sensitivity

When assessing the transition from print to digital with subscribers based on geographical location, conducting a thorough assessment and research is imperative to comprehend the historical and cultural context. Past atrocities or events may have emotionally impacted the community in various cities, areas, and states nationwide. Navigating this transition requires paying internal and external homage to subscribers who have been advocates of your organization and their community during those times. It’s crucial to approach this with respect and sensitivity, recognizing that specific topics may be triggering or alarming. Many consumers and business owners rely on news organizations to act as a bridge in working through grievances and emotional turmoil, contributing to the restoration of the community spirit.

Your digital platform should reflect the same mission and responsibility, aligning with the news organization’s outlook and carrying the burden of maintaining a responsible relationship with the audience. However, communities often see the reduction or elimination of print as a sign of disinvestment or failure — it’s imperative that news leaders offer a clear message to their community that they are committed to continuing to serve their audiences with essential local journalism. A clear understanding of the audience’s concentration in specific locations enhances trust and loyalty and inevitably contributes to increased subscription revenue through new acquisitions and retention. It’s essential to emphasize that this practice is not to be taken advantage of; rather, it is crucial for the spirit and longevity of the community and the sustainability of the relationship with your organization and our industry.

Streamlining subscriber infrastructure

Integrating geographical data, financial structures, and existing subscriber information into customer management software poses a significant challenge, especially when assessing subscribers based on their geographical location. A concise and straightforward process fosters a stronger, long-term relationship with your subscriber base. To achieve this, prioritize clear communication across all aspects of the subscriber experience. Whether using separate or integrated platforms for consumer or subscriber management, focus on a simple, cohesive structure that facilitates hassle-free renewals and straightforward billing. 

Key indicators

The decision to eliminate print distribution in certain geographic areas ultimately will come down to the profitability of different distribution centers. 

You should start by identifying locations that support sales of less than a certain number of copies. For a larger metro paper, 1,000 copies per weekday is a good benchmark.

You can then determine the profitability of each distribution center by calculating circulation plus insert revenue, less trucking, delivery, and newsprint costs for the copies sent there. 

When implementing your go-to-market strategy and launching the digital platform that will replace what your current print subscribers are receiving, focus on key performance indicators that provide clear insights into the success of your print-to-digital transition. 

Begin by concentrating on metrics such as adoption rate — the percentage of your existing print subscribers successfully transition to digital usage — which gauges how well your print subscribers are embracing the new way of accessing your content online, followed by their retention rate. This metric can  track the percentage of subscribers who continue to use the platform and access your content digitally over a specific period (e.g., monthly, quarterly, yearly). These metrics offer concrete data on the platform’s utilization and ability to retain traditional print subscribers in specific geographic areas. Over a defined timeline, closely monitor reader revenue growth and set benchmarks at 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month intervals to assess the impact on both new acquisitions and retained revenue. 

Simultaneously, track engagement with news coverage:  How big is the audience? Which types of coverage are resonating most? Are there any discernible patterns in reader behavior? Also track customer service requests and support issues by location, allowing you to promptly identify local trends and address concerns. This can be especially helpful if you are planning to reduce print on a geographical basis. Analyze when readers are accessing your coverage most frequently, aligning those times with the preferences of your print subscribers in concentrated geographical areas. Lastly, keep a vigilant eye on the performance of your infrastructure and customer relationship management system, ensuring a smooth transition and resolving any location-specific issues.


Running tests with segments of your audience before making any decisions about print reduction based on geography is crucial for news organizations who hope to retain their subscribers. This approach introduces unique challenges, requiring an optimal testing strategy to serve the audience honestly while maintaining integrity. The goal is to add value to the audience and subscribers by extending the brand through a new digital platform, reaching the widest audience possible. This adaptation is essential for retaining and enhancing revenue, aligning with organizational goals. Successful implementation demands careful planning, execution, and thorough testing, ensuring a seamless print-to-digital transition.

Geographic segmentation analysis

Begin by grouping subscribers by region and conducting research or tests to analyze their interaction with digital content, conversion rates, and engagement levels. Conduct surveys or A/B communication tests to tailor communication strategies to each region, aiming for an optimal and region-specific approach to the print-to-digital transition. Gain valuable insights to retain and enhance revenue while maintaining content integrity.

Localized content relevance testing

Similarly, it is imperative to conduct localized content relevance testing during the print-to-digital transition, which involves testing variations of content with regional relevance to gauge their impact on reader satisfaction, engagement, and subscription retention. Understanding the preferences of subscribers in specific geographic areas allows organizations to adjust content strategies accordingly.

For instance, incorporating content that resonates with subscribers in particular parts of a city, such as featuring local sports teams, may significantly enhance engagement and conversion levels during the transition.

Pricing optimization based on geography

The concept of pricing optimization based on geography is a significant aspect of transitioning from print to digital, albeit potentially controversial. Implementing A/B testing with different pricing models in distinct regions allows organizations to analyze conversion rates, revenue growth, and subscriber satisfaction and its correlation to subscriber geography. This approach may also involve additional A/B testing variations such as flat annual fees, monthly subscriptions, or other models based on prior testing insights. While maintaining a cohesive pricing structure is advised, adaptability to different models in specific geographical locations can be beneficial for sustaining and enhancing the success of the print-to-digital transition journey.


The key to implementing changes to your print distribution geography is to have a complete understanding of how your printing and distribution network operates. For a basic overview, check out the Toolkit’s manufacturing section, but to really learn the nuances you’ll need to connect with your outlet’s operations staff. 

To implement a successful print-to-digital subscriber strategy for reader revenue, establish an internal team that outlines clear objectives and ensures a customer-centric focus. Craft comprehensive surveys that comply with legal and ethical standards. This survey should delve into customer demographics and geographical locations, assessing digital readiness, comfort levels, and preferences of the current print subscriber base. Conduct external research specific to geographical variations, including an analysis of proficiency and internet accessibility. Align your coverage with this insight and develop a sound monetization strategy, articulating the value proposition and reasons for payment. 

Understand historical and cultural contexts depending on region and equip customer support personnel to address potential issues. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution knew its rural geographies had delivery issues, so it utilized that challenge to help promote its digital products as a valuable solution. 

When The Philadelphia Inquirer decided in 2023 to eliminate print delivery in some areas and move to postal delivery in others, it published detailed FAQs that it shared with the affected subscribers. Here’s the FAQ it published for areas where delivery was no longer available. And here is what it published for subscribers now receiving the paper via mail

If you have ample runway and don’t need to immediately cut print, you may benefit by focusing on specific geographies while making the transition. The Seattle Times tested mail delivery across its delivery area, and it caused confusion among its subscriber base when some readers in the same neighborhoods were still getting their traditional morning delivery while others were receiving the paper with the mail later in the day.

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