Case Study

How The Seattle Times experimented with mail delivery for its print edition

The Times ran the experiment across its delivery area to get feedback from its print subscribers

By Hayley Slusser

May 1, 2024

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This case study is part of Beyond Print, a program created by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the American Press Institute to help guide publishers away from print-centric revenue models toward a sustainable digital future. Sign up for The Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter for updates on the forthcoming Beyond Print Toolkit.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, carrier shortages and changes in staff among regional partners began impacting some of The Seattle Times’s print newspaper delivery routes. In 2022, it began an experiment to deliver some of its print copies via the U.S. Postal Service. It tested the change in delivery method in different geographies and with multiple subscriber types to better understand how subscribers would tolerate the change.

Why this matters: 

The Times was pursuing aggressive subscription pricing strategies among their subscribers, but delivery via carrier was inconsistent, making it difficult to justify price increases. When getting the paper delivered with the mail, the customer would be guaranteed to receive a paper 6 days-a-week at approximately the same time each day, though likely not in the morning as many readers traditionally expect. 


The Times ran the test with 2% of its subscriber base. It included all subscriber types and all geographies in its initial test. The staff considered the following factors evenly when selecting participants for the experiment: 

  • Tenure
  • Delivery satisfaction
  • Weekend, Sunday-only, and 7-day subscribers. 

“We needed the insight of the behaviors of our core subscribers — that is, those subscribers that are within our core distribution area, long tenured, and paying high rates — to determine what the effect would be if we moved the entire subscriber base to mail delivery, not just those in more peripheral geographies, those that are less tenured, and those with less price elasticity,” said Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue..

Once it selected the subscribers it wanted to include in the experiment, The Times had to work with the U.S. Postal Service to arrange same-day delivery via mail. 

“Working through obtaining the postal permissions for same-day delivery (Exceptional Dispatch) was challenging, just in the numbers and the patience it takes for that process to happen,” Huber said.  

On weekdays, postal subscribers received the same newspaper as all other Times subscribers, but mail is not delivered on Sunday, so the Times had to come up with another product instead of the traditional Sunday paper. The Times created the Weekend Edition, which was delivered by mail on Saturday and was a hybrid of the Saturday and Sunday papers. 

“We wanted to preserve as much of the Sunday newspaper experience as possible,” Huber said. “We’ve done a lot of reader research on the value of the Sunday experience. But we knew we couldn’t negatively impact the rest of readers — the 98% that were not in the test group.”

The Weekend Edition had all of the advance run sections that were already printed on deadline and a new local news edition called “Weekend Dispatch” that included coverage from most non-advance run sections. The Times has its own printing facility, so the newsroom worked with the operations and circulation delivery teams on logistics.

The Times notified subscribers of the change via email and via a letter included in their carrier-delivered paper. The team waited to notify them until one week in advance in hopes that more customers would be willing to experience the new delivery approach rather than stew in frustration. 

Subscribers did not receive any pricing changes with the shift, and all customers in the test group made the change at the same time. Huber said all print subscribers automatically receive information on how to access news via the Times’ digital platforms. It did not make any major changes to how frequently print subscribers are reminded of the digital benefits. 

Then, on October 11, 2022, the Times made the switch. 

Team involved: 

Huber said the Times kept the team small in order to move the transition along quickly. The working group, which met weekly, included representatives from the major impacted areas — circulation (both print operations and audience revenue), advertising, news, marketing and production — along with the president. 

The customer service team also received additional training and talking points to better field subscribers’ calls. 


The Times surveyed its readers within the first week of the transition, after three months, and at six months. The initial survey was designed to help frustrated customers feel heard and to capture feedback from subscribers who won’t take the time to call customer service, and the later surveys were to understand the transition in reader habits. 

“This was particularly important to understand if we had to move more subscribers in the future — what were the barriers they were encountering in making those transitions,” Huber said. 

Subscribers, especially loyal seven-day subscribers, were initially frustrated by the move. Since the Times experimented across its delivery area, rather than only rural areas, individuals who knew that their neighbors were still getting the paper delivered via carrier were also more dissatisfied. Many readers said they valued the experience of reading the newspaper in the morning. 

Customers who wanted to cancel were offered 30 days free to adjust to the change. Seven-day subscriber stop rates were higher than Sunday-only subscribers due to the disruption.

The Times saw a 23% loss in print revenue among the test group and its first material decline in print revenue in 2023. Mail delivery subscribers do not have the same pricing elasticity, but since most readers still receive the paper via carrier, the Times raised rates more broadly to help offset the losses.

What they learned: 

The Times knew going into the experiment that mail delivery is ultimately cheaper because postage fees are less than carrier rates, but the experiment sought to determine what the volume and revenue losses would be over time and how pricing elasticity would look for mail subscribers. 

For many Sunday-only subscribers, the change was not as significant. Huber said these customers were already used to using digital products during the rest of the week, and the “lean-back” experience of Sunday print was still there with the Weekend Edition. 

The team determined that mail delivery is a good option if carrier delivery is no longer sustainable in a specific geography, but the savings did not offset the volume and revenue losses for all geographies. 

“In the end, it is a math question for each individual property, but you have to understand the inputs before you go all in.”

Since conducting the experiment, a partner organization that delivered The Times in two outlying geographies ceased its distribution, causing The Times to move these readers to mail delivery as well. But due to minimal changes in cost savings and revenue, it does not plan to broaden mail delivery. 

Next steps: 

As it continues to produce quality journalism that serves the needs of the community, The Seattle Times is focused on growing digital subscribers in both volume and average subscription rates. It is planning to keep a print product for the foreseeable future and intends to avoid making choices that can accelerate print decline. 

How to implement this strategy: 

Staff roles and responsibilities will likely evolve as your organization begins utilizing mail delivery. Getting staff on board with the change can be a great opportunity to uplift your team’s strengths and skills that may not have been previously utilized. For example, The Times had an existing operation’s staff member that already had experience working with local post offices, making the process of securing postal approvals much faster.

A clear external communications strategy at the start of your experiment can also make a major difference. The Times sent clear and concise information to subscribers prior to the switch and armed its customer service team with detailed talking points in advance.

The Times tested all their geographies at once to understand how all types of subscribers would respond to the switch to mail delivery, ultimately coming to the conclusion that mail delivery is not ideal for their organization. But other newsrooms who want to make mail delivery more permanent may benefit from rolling out mail delivery gradually, which gives your team time to assess subscribers’ initial reactions and adjust your strategy as time goes on. 

Added Resources: 

Organization overview:

  • Organization: The Seattle Times
  • Owner: The Blethen Family/McClatchy
  • Target audience: Seattle metro area / Washington
  • Digital-only Subscribers: 91,000
  • Daily Print Circulation: 72,500
  • Sunday Print Circulation: 122,700
  • Print status: Daily print

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