The best reason that some newspapers have to stay in print — at least a few days a week — is to distribute coupons and circulars (free-standing inserts, or FSIs, in the jargon). But as newspaper circulation declines below critical mass and as digital means of delivery of coupons and bargains catch on, the FSI line of business is the next to fall over the cliff for papers.
Rick Edmonds at Poynter writes about an NAA study that says the coupon business for newspapers is under siege. Meanwhile, Coupons.com brags that the growth of digital coupons is surging; printouts of deals at Coupons.com alone equaled $858 million last year. This comes as coupon use in America is growing overall for the first time in 17 years; we redeemed 3.3 billion last year, a 27% jump over 2008. Sunday coupons still account for the lion’s share of the business, but online is growing fast.
Newspapers defined themselves and their barrier to entry by their production — we already know what is happening to paper — and distribution — now we see what is to become of that.
It’s not just coupons that are affected. When I visited the very smart people at Best Buy a few months ago, I came to see that their circular is media as well; it provides value to manufacturers and consumers. Large retailers, like manufacturers, need effective distribution and as newspapers shrink, they will need to look at alternatives.
Is that the Postal Service? Well, they, too, are losing a fortune (more on that soon). Most of what the Post Office delivers today is advertising and I certainly don’t want to subsidize that with my stamps or taxes, so I’d expect advertising postal rates to rise, which will also put pressure on coupon and circular advertisers, motivating them even more to find ways to make digital work.
The problem with digital coupons and circulars has been portability: the extra and inconvenient step of printing out supresses use. But now enter the smart phone and the long-fabled day of the smart, mobile coupon may actually arrive. If I can check into a flight with a scan of my iPhone shouldn’t I be able to buy toilet paper with it? The value of that redemption is greater for the advertiser because (a) it may cost them nothing — no need to use media as a middleman if I receive deals directly and (b) the advertiser will know a lot more about me; that data itself is terribly valuable and (c) this allows the advertiser to target with far greater relevance, which (d) is better for us customers.
I think there’s a short-term opportunity here for someone to craigslist (as a verb) the newspaper distribution business, creating the means to deliver in key markets with greater reach and better Zip code targeting, drastically undercutting both newspapers and the Postal Service. As coupons do move to mobile and digital, this business will go away, too, but it won’t have much in the way of shut-down cost so there’s a way to disrupt the last dying ember of an industry and get some nice cash flow. If I were a coupon company — and News Corp. is — I’d do it myself.
The point: expect the coupon and FSI business to head over a cliff and with it, another important revenue stream for print papers, giving them more reason to abandon print.
ONE MORE THING: I’ve told this first part of this story before: When I was Sunday editor of the NY Daily News and we came back from a strike, we didn’t have coupons because Murdoch was feuding with our new owner, Robert Maxwell. When they did return, our circ went up 100k. Those people were buying coupons more than the paper.
Now the second part: I later proposed to a publisher starting a coupon magazine that would be sold at supermarket checkout. Yes, I said sold. I wasn’t going to charge readers for content. I was going to charge them for advertising. Didn’t happen, sadly. Still think it was a good idea.