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How would you like to buy a whole year’s home-delivery subscription to the Union-Tribune, Thursday through Sunday,for $29.95? That’s particularly enticing, because if you want only six months of the same thing, you pay more than double: $72. And if you want a year for Friday through Sunday — only three days each week — you pay $123, four times as much.

Goodness gracious! Those are anomalous prices. Yet they are listed as “basic prices” in the Union-Tribune’s March 29, 2009 newspaper publisher’s statement to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), the outfit that rides herd on publications’ circulation claims.

According to the audit bureau, basic price is “the price at which the publication may be purchased by anyone at any time.” First I called the U-T to ask what it would cost me to get a one-year subscription of Thursday-Sunday papers. Answer: $134.16. I asked a friend to call. Same answer: $134.16. Then I called the U-T and said that the $29.95 was a basic rate listed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Could I get that rate? Answer: “That’s a special promotion for customers that receive their third renewal notice.”

Clearly, that rate doesn’t go to anyone at any time. Was this a scam? Use of deep price slashes to pump up lagging circulation? The strategy is questionable, but I wouldn’t call it a scam.

I noticed that the Orange County Register had a similarly incongruous rate: $37.11 Thursday-Sunday for a whole year, but $66.82 for a half year; Friday-Sunday was $144.78, almost four times what Thursday-Sunday went for.

I called the Register and asked if I could get that $37.11 rate. “It’s no longer available,” I was told.

I called and emailed the U-T’s head of circulation and got no response. But Larry Riley, vice president of circulation of Orange County Register Communications, was very helpful. “Newspapers have a tradition of discounting,” Riley said. “Newspapers may have 50 different prices,” including deals for college students, senior citizens, etc.

Hey, I understand that. I have haggled for both new and used cars. I have put in lowball offers for real estate. I have shopped at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where every price is listed but none is firm.

For years, the audit bureau would say that if a newspaper got at least half the listed price, the deal would count as paid circulation. “In March of 2006, the ABC relaxed their discount policy and allowed us to cut by 75 percent and still count it as paid circulation,” says Riley. Then this year, the board decided that anything goes: if a newspaper can fetch only a penny, the transaction qualifies as paid circulation.

There is a difference with the Register: if you got the $37.11 rate back when it was available, you would have had to pay the entire sum up front. If you called the Register and specifically inquired about that low price, it would have been quoted. If you asked something like “What’s the cheapest price available?” you would have been told about the $37.11, says Riley.

Riley uses flexible pricing to match the desires of advertisers. A certain number of households in a certain zip code might find in their mailbox an offer to buy the paper at the super-low basic price. It’s an example of target pricing. About 12 to 15 percent of people in the market get the low basic rate. “I can’t offer deep discounts marketwide,” he says.

At the U-T, you don’t have to pay the $29.95 up front, according to an order taker. I asked some former U-T circulation executives about that incredibly low $29.95 basic price. “It sounds like smoke and mirrors,” said one. “When I was there, we didn’t do anything that drastic.”

“It’s incongruous but allowed,” said another.

“I was never involved in pricing issues, but I do remember that we had a heavily discounted rate in Temecula,” said Jules Veuger, a former circulation manager.

Neal Lulofs, senior vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, said that since a newspaper can now be sold for a penny and recorded as paid circulation, the basic prices listed with his organization probably won’t be as important.

For now, it appears that only about 30 of 700 audit bureau members have been using the deep-slash strategy. In some cases, Media-

News Group, the financially troubled Denver-based owner of a number of papers, including some in Southern California, has had 12-month basic rates that are lower than 3-month rates. In any case, circulation salespeople have for years had the latitude to slash prices — now, to almost nothing.

So what is the Union-Tribune’s circulation, anyway? Beginning in recent days, the U-T has been listing “readership” on its front page. In late July, daily readership was listed as 672,612 and Sunday as 876,325. However, according to the audit bureau, daily circulation as of March 31 (the last report) was 261,253, a good deal less than half of so-called readership. Sunday circulation was 330,848, also far less than half what the U-T claims is its readership.

The U-T is using numbers from Scarborough Research. It defines daily readership as the number of adults (18 or over) in the local market who “read or looked into” the printed version at least once during the past five days. Sunday readership is the number of adults reading or looking into the paper at least once during the past four Sundays.

That’s a lot different from circulation. And more favorable to the U-T, whose daily circulation has plummeted 31 percent and Sunday swooned 27 percent in the last decade. Sunday single-copy sales (such as those purchased from vending machines) have plunged 56.9 percent in the past five years, the biggest drop among newspapers with circulations above 100,000.

Scarborough now has what’s called an “integrated newspaper audience” for publications. It purports to measure the percentage of adults in a market who have read the printed edition or visited the website during the past seven days. Under this concept, the U-T reaches 67 percent of the local market in a week. There is some skepticism about those Scarborough estimates.

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Comments

curmudgeon Aug. 19, 2009 @ 4:46 p.m.

I know someone who was pitched (and accepted) the low U-T price by a door-to-door salesman two weeks ago. But that doesn't beat several solicitations I've received from the L.A. Times over the last year, always involving a gift card as a rebate.

The last one I received offers the Times Thurs.-Sun. for a year for $39.95, with a $20 Target gift card coming back to me. So the net is $19.95 for a year!

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Don Bauder Aug. 19, 2009 @ 8:09 p.m.

Response to post #1: You have to wonder why anyone pays full price for a newspaper subscription. Best, Don Bauder

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traci_madison Aug. 20, 2009 @ 10:24 a.m.

After ignoring several U-T renewal requests, I was sent the $29.95 one year Thursday-Sunday offer. Of course I signed up! What a deal! As an added (but unexpected bonus), I get a paper delivered seven days a week.

I generally enjoy the U-T, except for its conservative political slant. Besides, the Sunday coupons pay for the paper.

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Don Bauder Aug. 20, 2009 @ 10:32 a.m.

Response to post #3: Yes, many people who have not signed up for a paper get one anyway. The gratis Sunday ones are usually paid for (maybe) by a big retail advertiser. The daily deliveries you are getting would appear to be another way to jack up circulation numbers. As to the coupons: the U-T has advertised for many years that the coupons cover the cost of a subscription. Best, Don Bauder

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Josh Board Aug. 20, 2009 @ 3:19 p.m.

I used to pay full price for newspaper subscriptions, and never thought twice about it. I hate to admit, it wasn't until I was in the theatres watching the movie Boiler Room, and the main character (who sells crappy, bogus stocks) is eating cereal, and gets a call from someone trying to pitch a newspaper subscription. When he's told of how cheap some rates are, he says "So...the current subscribers are getting screwed, and would never get these deal you're offering me right now?"

So, I let my subscription run out, and waited a few weeks. Sure enough, I got one of the good deals and have stuck with that.

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Don Bauder Aug. 20, 2009 @ 3:52 p.m.

Response to post #5: Josh, you have it figured. Let your subscription run out. When you get your call, try to work the price down. They will comply. But if they haven't gone far enough, say you are still not interested and let them call again. This time it will be cheaper. Best, Don Bauder

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monaghan Aug. 21, 2009 @ 8:58 p.m.

Sonofagun, I'm gonna try this with both the NY Times and the LA Times which I buy seven days a week for one year at a time for a lot of money.

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Don Bauder Aug. 21, 2009 @ 10:33 p.m.

Response to post #7: I would definitely give it a try -- particularly the LA Times. Drop your subscription and see what happens. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh Aug. 22, 2009 @ 10:14 p.m.

If you use coupons habitually, their value can more than pay for the paper, I suppose. But that means that you MUST use coupons, not just talk about it. To make a true saving, the coupons must also be used for expenditures that you would make anyway. If you're spending on things that are nonessential or purely discretionary while using coupons, that's not saving at all.

If you enjoy a meal at, say, Pat and Oscar's, once every couple weeks, using their occasional coupons can save real dollars. But if you head there only because of the coupon and spend far more than you would have by staying home and eating your own cooking, sorry, that's not a real saving. Oh, it makes the meal out less costly and may keep it affordable, but it isn't a saving.

If the only reason you buy the newspaper is for the coupons, that may also represent a false economy. Now that the supers have cut back sharply on doubling manufacturers coupons, they are worth less than before. By all means, use coupons, but keep a clear eye on real vs. illusory savings.

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Don Bauder Aug. 22, 2009 @ 10:32 p.m.

Response to post #9: Good points. There are other ways to get discounts at supermarkets and restaurants, too. There must be studies on what percentage of coupons are actually used. And as you say, many are used for unnecessary things; the coupons become another lure for impulse buying. Best, Don Bauder

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cgmSD Oct. 27, 2009 @ 11:08 a.m.

wow! it actually worked, i was just waiting for my 3rd renewal to come in the mail

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lostsock Nov. 5, 2009 @ 5:48 p.m.

I don't know if the U-T changed their policy or what, but when my subscription ran out in August of this year, they kept delivering the paper for 3 months and then sent me a bill for my "past due" account! When I asked about this, I was told that the paper was delivered "as a courtesy" (I never got any notices or phone calls during the 3 months) and that's why I now have a past due balance. Is that a scam or what?!? Needless to say, I have no intention of paying for anything that I didn't order.

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