Beyond Print Toolkit: Public communications

Honesty and transparency can help keep readers informed — and ensure they keep their subscriptions

By Hayley Slusser

June 27, 2024

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When it comes to reducing your organization’s print frequency, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Senior Director of Strategy and Innovation Rodney Gibbs put it best: “There may be bumps along the way, but your print subscribers can come along with you with a little TLC.”

Building a communications plan for print reduction looks different for all organizations, but keeping your audience in the loop can make a big difference in retaining your subscribers as you make changes to your product offerings and frequency. 

The essentials

Customer communications can play an important role before your organization even decides to reduce print. Focus groups and surveys before making the shift can help identify which products consumers would be most likely to use in place of print. When it comes time to actually make the change, print inserts, notices on bills, direct mail outreach, email messages, and even webinars or events can be used to inform subscribers. 

Continuing to survey audiences during and after any transitions can help your organization understand where it may need to pivot to better serve its audiences. Some organizations even publish blog posts or letters from the editor to ensure readers continue to feel like valued stakeholders in the organization’s future. 

John Newby, founder of 360 Media Alliance and Truly-Local, spoke with Editor & Publisher  about a newspaper he worked with during its print transition. 

“The publisher and editor did a great job telling the public what was happening. They discussed financials, finding carriers, newsprint costs, market trends and much more. They treated their readers as family and conveyed the reason for the changes honestly,” Newby wrote. “At the end of the day, they lost very few readers and gained a ton of respect simply by being honest with their readers upfront about the reasons for the changes. That is what actually builds your brand — honesty and transparency.”

Key indicators

Unless your organization is conducting surveys, focus groups, or Q&A events in advance, it can be difficult to understand how audiences are responding to your organization’s communications strategy until after print reduction is actually implemented. 

Some organizations have found it’s better to go over-the-top to ensure readers are up-to-date as the deadline for the transition approaches. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the largest daily newspaper in western Colorado, announced plans to cut print on Mondays and Tuesdays in 2018. Despite a month of ads, personal columns, local events, 1-on-1 home visits, and more, the Sentinel still had more than 800 callers the day of the transition from readers who were confused about why their paper didn’t arrive — an indicator that more could have been done to communicate effectively. 

“If I were to do it over again — and the advice I give other publishers is — do a countdown on the front page, count down from 30 and have something every single day not just in house ads, but in articles and columns,” publisher Jay Seaton said in an interview with the American Press Institute. “It just wasn’t enough what we did, and we thought we’d overdone it. You can’t overdo it.”

Call volume and topics can be a helpful indicator for issues subscribers are concerned about. After The Salt Lake Tribune reduced its print frequency in 2021, the nonprofit quickly had to add temporary workers to its call center staff of four because they were receiving more than 1,000 calls a day. 

While they handled many calls about dealing with changes to print delivery, the more complicated issues were around questions about the Tribune’s e-edition, which also switched to a new vendor that year. As a result, the paper had to change its training and hired staffers who were more tech savvy and could handle the influx of calls. 


Every audience is different, and it’s worth surveying your readers to understand the best way to reach them and how to develop products that meet their needs. 

Once it decided to reduce print frequency in 2018, German newspaper taz began surveying its readership to better understand which products they valued and their likelihood to convert to a different product after daily print was discontinued. Organizations like taz and Alabama Media Group, which eliminated all its print products in 2023, learned about their readers’ wants and needs through these surveys, including the desire for curated content through mediums like an e-edition. 

These surveys informed not only the changes they made, but then how they communicated them to their audiences.

Taz CEO Aline Lüllmann said the survey results ended up serving as further reassurance, as taz originally expected to lose about half of its print readers, but survey data only suggested around 25% would abandon the organization completely. 

Meanwhile, Texas-based Denton Media Company spoke to subscribers individually and found that a common misconception among readers was that a reduction in print meant a reduction in content, which made them want to end their subscriptions — meaning a change in the company’s communications strategy was necessary.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reduced its print frequency in waves, rolling it out to a few ZIP codes at a time. After implementation, it typically experienced a jump in customer service calls, allowing the team to monitor common subscriber feedback and adjust their strategy accordingly. 

The team took a few weeks after it deployed the experiment to the first round of ZIP codes to adjust before moving on to the next batch of ZIP codes, but as time went on, it began to get into a smoother pace.

“That group that loves you enough to give you constructive feedback is one of the best groups to really interact with,” said Kelly Ann Scott, former vice president of content at Alabama Media Group.


Several organizations have prioritized messaging centered around the easiness and convenience of its digital products, reminding audiences that they can still access the same quality journalism without a print edition. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution created a quick guide for readers on how to access the digital benefits of their subscription and navigate all of its digital product offerings, and Alabama Media Group similarly created a video tutorial on accessing its e-edition. At the AJC, it knew it had several older readers or subscribers who never accessed the news digitally, so it took its customer communications a step further: It hosted in-person events across the state where subscribers could meet with a team member for a 1-on-1 training session on using digital products.

As your organization embarks on its digital transformation, keeping audiences in the loop on your internal affairs can also help them feel more connected to the work. To keep readers up-to-date on happenings at the company, including print transitions, taz regularly updates a staff blog. Utilizing journalists, editors, or other team members who are well-known and trusted by the community can also make this messaging more impactful. The Akron Beacon Journal and the Greeley Tribune are among the organizations who have published FAQ columns in response to reader concerns regarding the organization’s digital transition. 

After the transition has begun, give your subscribers a chance to weigh in on the process. The Seattle Times shared an example of a survey it conducted after switching subscribers to mail delivery. Surveys not only help inform future iterations of the work, but also give those who are frustrated a chance to air out their concerns and feel like the organization is responsive. 

For more on how to best engage with readers and subscribers, check out the full customer service section of the Toolkit