Key demographic

By Allan I. Ross

Early results: LSJ is keeping senior citizen subscribers

Ever since he got out of the Army in 1946, Dillard Garrison has read a daily newspaper from cover to cover. Sometimes it was the Lansing State Journal, sometimes it was the Detroit Free Press, it didn’t matter — it was just part of his everyday routine. Five years ago, the 89-year-old moved to Friendship Manor, a retirement community next to Frandor, where the routine continues, albeit in a somewhat altered format. “We have a ritual,” says Garrison. “I bring the paper down and we all check the obituaries to see if we’re in there.”

Garrison gathers with his friends and fellow residents every morning at 8 a.m. to share the LSJ, which he subscribes to, drink coffee, and talk about “important stuff.” Over the years he’s seen the paper steadily shrink and his delivery person go from being a 12-year-old on a bike every afternoon to someone behind the wheel of a car flinging his paper at his door at 4 a.m.

But the latest changes are going to affect him more than just nostalgically.

“My rate just went up,” says Garrison. “It’s still less than $1 a day, which I don’t really mind because I enjoy the paper, but I don’t think I’ll pay much more than that. It’s hard to imagine my day without a newspaper in front of me. It’s getting expensive, though.”

Garrison is part of an important demographic for newspapers: readers over 55, who make up 31 percent of Michigan newspaper readers, according to a five-year-old study by American Opinion Research. The older they are, the more likely they are to be on fixed incomes, like Garrison — and the more likely they are to cancel the Lansing State Journal after its recent price increases.

LSJ home delivery rates for Wednesday through Sunday increased over 30 percent on May 1 for those who pay automatically, from about $13 to $17 a month. Seven-day home delivery rates are now $23 a month, a 40 percent increase. For $12 a month, however, you can skip the physical paper altogether and have full access to the digital stories. These rate hikes include full access to the paper’s website, which now has a paywall that will keep non-subscribers from reading online content for free.

(Subscribers who refuse to pay the increase are likely to get a three-month extension of current rates while they try out digital versions.)

The Journal is justifying the rate increase by giving subscribers the “privilege” of access to the website at no additional cost, as publisher Brian Priester put it in a letter last month to home-delivery customers.

How are seniors taking the news?

Not too badly, judging from reaction at Friendship Manor and at Independence Village in East Lansing. Of 10 residents, none plan to cancel — although five share a subscription, so the impact is less.

Still, they say they doubt they’ll use the digital version that the extra cost is supposedly paying for.

“I don’t consider sitting at my computer and reading something online the same thing at all,” says Grace French, 80, a retired schoolteacher and resident at Independence Village in East Lansing. “There’s no room for my coffee cup. I will never read the news off a computer screen.” Like Garrison, French also subscribes to the LSJ and reads it nearly front-to-back every day. She has a desktop computer, but says if she had to get her news from something other than a paper she’d just listen to the radio. However, she notably keeps clippings of her friends’ obituaries close at hand, and picks one up from an adjacent table when the subject comes up. “I like to keep them for awhile and re-read them from time to time,” she says, unconsciously stroking it as she talks. “It makes me feel good to have them close by.”

The LSJ, a subsidiary of national media chain Gannett, isn’t the only newspaper to try to get its readers to pay for online content. Since the first paywall was implemented by The Wall Street Journal at the dawn of the Internet boom in the late 90s, hundreds of daily newspapers have erected paywalls. Recent media industry research predicts that by the end of 2012, a quarter of all printed publications will have either “hard” or “soft” paywalls in effect. The rationale is that readers should pay for content regardless of how they get it. But Garrison is apparently willing to pay for online content that he will never access — a testament to the newspaper habit. That argument only works, however, for the majority who actually use the Internet. As for the rest?

“When my wife died, I gave our computer away,” says Garrison. “I don’t have a computer and I don’t want one. To me, it’s just another thing.”

Some of the others in Garrison’s coffee club admit to using computers, but mostly for emailing purposes, not to read the news. Asked if she’d ever consider reading her news on the computer, 80-year-old Friendship Manor resident Joyce Lintemuth blurted out, “Heck no! I’ll just watch what’s on TV and forget it.”

Garrison’s daily copy of the LSJ brought them together, but it’s hardly their binding force.

“The newspaper has nothing to do with this,” quips Garrison. “It’s the free coffee.”