Denver Post program delivers ex-subscribers ads but not newspaper

Even as it planned sweeping copy-editor layoffs, the Denver Post touted a circulation leap, albeit one taking place mainly online. Indeed, the number of physical papers being delivered keeps sliding -- hence "Sunday Select," a Post program that makes free deliveries to homes of former Sunday subscribers. But participants only get the ad inserts, not the newspaper itself.

The concept's not new, says Kirk MacDonald, executive vice president of sales for Digital First Media and former head of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which managed the now obsolete joint-operating agreement between the Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Indeed, Sunday Select has been operational for a year or two -- and it's become increasingly important to the newspaper's bottom line. According to MacDonald, twelve insert advertisers are using the program on a regular basis, with 75,000 households currently receiving Sunday insert packages.

How's it work?

"It's really pretty simple," MacDonald maintains. "We call subscribers who have dropped their Sunday subscriptions and ask if they want the inserts. And if they opt in, we deliver them."

MacDonald sees the results as a win-win-win. "The advertisers get to keep their distribution levels up as circulation declines, which has been an ongoing issue for many years," he concedes. "So we continue to deliver value to advertisers, and obviously, we maintain the revenue generated from the inserts. And the customer continues to get the value of the inserts if they don't want to subscribe to the Sunday paper."

These former subscribers haven't lost interest in the Post, MacDonald emphasizes. Rather, he believes they're now accessing the paper's work online -- a theory supported by its rising digital readership. "We have a larger audience than we've ever had," he says. "So the question is, how do we monetize it?"

Although Sunday Select doesn't directly address this issue from a digital perspective, it uses the Post's considerable resources -- including a printing plant and a vast delivery network -- to create the revenue needed to support what MacDonald calls "the whole transformation" of 21st century media. "If you're going to have declines in printed copies, we want to build strategies to minimize those declines and move people to the digital platform," he allows. "And this program is a perfect illustration of that."

It also meets a need, MacDonald continues. "There are such things as digital inserts. Every newspaper runs them on their commerce site, and most advertisers have their inserts replicated in the digital format. But people still like the actual inserts. In every readership study I've ever looked at, 50 percent of the people who subscribe to the newspaper say they do it for the ads. And we're not just throwing the inserts to households that have stopped the newspaper. This program says if you want to continue to receive the Sunday pre-print package, you can opt in, and our carriers will deliver it to you."

Back in what MacDonald refers to as "the old newspaper war days," before a JOA linked the Post and the now-defunct Rocky, the dailies delivered complete newspapers, ads included, to non-subscribers as a way of pumping up their circulation figures. "We used to call them 'bonus copies,'" MacDonald recalls. But today, he believes it makes more sense to deliver the inserts only.

"If they want to consume the newspaper on a different platform, they can -- and still get the printed inserts," he says. "And it shows there's still a lot of power in those inserts. So what's not to like?"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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