Are TMC Products a Value or Unnecessary Expense in Today’s Newspaper Environment?

Editor’s Note: They popped up around this part of the country in the early to mid-1970s, quickly growing in popularity to where there was one or two in every county. Many were started by individuals who didn’t worry about including news in their product, they just had to sell advertising, print it on newsprint, even color newsprint to make it stand out and mass produce to send to every home in the area.

They came on strong as “shoppers,” many of them including that word in the names. Eventually, newspapers saw their advertising inches and inserts decreasing because someone else had started a shopper. So newspapers had to adjust their operation to have one available for clients, especially grocery and discount stores who saw the value in having a publication delivered to every home in the county. Delivered by mail or by carrier. Those newspapers who didn’t adapt to the new advertising publication found it difficult to retain advertisers.

“Shopper” might have been the generic name for a while but eventually “Total Market Coverage” became the sophisticated phrase used by newspapers, stressing to advertisers that the publication went to every home, even every business in the community. It was more impressive to say, “We have a Total Market Coverage publication if that’s what you’re needing,” instead of just telling potential clients, “We have a shopper.”

Then the idea changed again so that only homes that did not subscribe to a paid publication newspaper received the TMC. That way, newspapers could still say they had a TMC but it wasn’t always as a stand alone TMC product. Communities and residents eventually took battle with the TMCs, threatening ordinances to prohibit throwing “unwanted” printed material in the yards and driveways and requiring the companies take extra step to place the publication on a porch area. Newspapers countered by telling residents, “If you do not want to receive our TMC product, just let us know and we’ll put you on our Do Not Deliver list.”

Advertisers more recently backed off using TMC products in their advertising strategies. There are mailing services that will send preprints en masse to all residents but the need to have a TMC publication, just for the sake of saying you have one, is no longer a requirement to combat other advertising resources.

This article from E&P comes at a time when fewer and fewer shoppers or TMC products are realities. The opportunity is still there should a publisher see that it’s a vital part of their business format but it’s not the necessity it was 20-30 even 40 years ago.

By Jerry Simpkins, Editor & Publisher

Total Market Coverage (TMC) products are regarded by many as a mixed blessing. Virtually all our properties have at one time or another had a TMC. Due to declines in preprints and increasing expense, a few have shut them down. Some see a need for a TMC from both an advertising and production standpoint, and others see TMC’s as a declining segment of their operation that has lost its usefulness.

Every market is different, and I don’t believe there is any one size fits all approach to decide whether a TMC fits into your overall plan or not. Like we do in so many parts of our operation, you’ll need to carefully evaluate your TMC to determine the right fit for your franchise.

What’s the “function” of your TMC? Do you look at your TMC as an unnecessary expense or a revenue opportunity? When coupled with your core publication, does your TMC provide advertisers with one-stop coverage to reach subscribers and non-subscribers alike? If you stopped your TMC, would the advertisers find alternatives and perhaps take their core preprints with them?

Lots of questions not easily answered, but here are some points to consider.

Use of a Jacket. From an operations standpoint, most of our properties realize the requirement for a TMC as a jacket/wrap for preprints. While needing a jacket to support all those preprints is a nice problem to have it also adds to your expense line. Layout, printing and inserting are costs that come with every product we send out the door and a TMC is, of course, no exception. However, realistically we often don’t have a lot of choice.

Led primarily by grocery stores, a TMC can offer preprint advertisers additional reach when partnered with core products. If you’re one of the lucky ones whose preprint advertisers still see the value of reaching non-subscribers and believe in your product over Red Plum or one of the other direct mail options, you may consider this a solid revenue stream more so than an expense. In that case, a TMC may make perfect sense to your property regardless of expenses in the operations area.

If your TMC passes this first test, you now will need to look at several other areas as advertising, news and operations crossover.

ROP Sales. The first word that comes to my mind is “anemic,” followed closely by “nonexistent”.  If you’re like most of the newspaper companies today, advertisers don’t have enough confidence or desire in our TMC products to place ROP advertising. If you’re counting on ROP supporting your TMC, it simply isn’t going to happen. I’m not painting this with a broad-brush but in my experience, I haven’t seen many TMCs with a strong and supportive ROP advertising base.

There’s always the exception to the rule and perhaps you have a powerful sales team that can make the magic happen.

Completed TMCs wait to be picked-up by carriers. These products are often divided by specific zones and delivered to non-subscribers either by regular contract carriers or a third-party vendor. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

Managing Operational Expenses. With the shortfall in ROP, most of our newspapers are reliant on preprints alone supporting our TMC efforts. The bad news is some of our properties have seen a decline in preprints. Coming from someone who still strongly believes in print, I believe this is limited throughout our industry and I’m even hopeful for a reversal of this trend as advertisers rediscover the power of print advertising.

In order to cover operational expenses, we must choose carefully and be mindful of what type of jacket we need to support preprints.

Pages/Size of Your TMC. If you’ve ever spent any time discussing this subject with your mailroom, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Ask your mailroom manager if a four-page newsprint broadsheet will support the 10 inserts you have, and I can predict the answer you’ll get. Jackets need body to hold a slew of preprints, and the smaller the jacket gets (page wise), the tougher and more expensive the job of inserting becomes for your mailroom. Productivity suffers, the bundles look terrible, and in the end, the expense you save running a thinner product is offset by the additional mailroom labor. It’s a bad idea to ignore the advice of a good operator when it comes to jacket value. Listen to your people.

The same goes for paper stock. There’s a huge difference trying to insert multiple preprints into a 27.6 pound four-page product verses a 30 pound six-page product. Productivity soars when you take this a step further and use even a heavier stock. Sure, it adds to the cost of printing the product, but you can save this and more through increased productivity on the production side of the operation, and your advertisers may even see more value in the additional quality and content.

The Value of Our Products. What’s the true value of your TMC? Do readers see it as a free news product or do they as we often do, see it as just a carrier for preprints?

The news content we fill our TMCs with is normally picked up from previous core publications. After all, the TMC isn’t somewhere we want to or can afford to add a dedicated staff to. We usually have someone in the newsroom or a graphic artist/ad clerk throw some stories on the pages for fill. Then, we wonder why ROP support for our TMCs is dead or dying.

While this process can be a means to an end for putting together a jacket that is used to carry preprints, do we ever stop to think what impression the quality of this product might leave on our non-subscribers? Is this really the picture we want to paint for non-subscribers and advertisers? Recycled articles from the past week that are being used just to fill space? Or do we want to tease non-subscribers with a weekly feature or TMC specific story designed to drive them to our core products and show the value of our publications to let them know what they’re really missing?

Again, I’m not suggesting we have a dedicated news staffer for our TMCs, but I am suggesting we need to figure out a way to make jackets (aka our TMC) more appealing or just consider a simple heavy stock wrap without news content. It appears to me that in most cases, we’ve abandoned marketing of our paid products through use of our TMCs.

Mailroom personnel load hoppers with preprints to assemble final TMC packages for distribution. In the forefront, a completed pallet of wrapped TMCs awaits pick-up and distribution to non-subscribers. At most newspapers, TMC products continue to provide a steady revenue stream, functioning as a jacket for preprints. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

How Does Your Management Team Look at TMCs? It’s important as well to evaluate how this free publication may be affecting your paid circulation base. There are non-subscribers who will not pay for our core publication no matter what we do. Some have an ax to grind and don’t like the paper. For others, the editorial stance is too liberal, too conservative, too much to the left, too much on the right—you get the idea. There are others who simply can’t afford a subscription. It’s a challenging world for many folks and when it comes to deciding between paying the electric bill and paying for a newspaper, and guess what wins?

Then, there’s what I’d call the target group. Non-subscribers who are content to read whatever free news is placed into our TMCs and reap the benefits of our sale circulars at absolutely no cost to the reader. Are we supporting their free news and advertising fix at our expense? Are we developing a group of non-subscribers who are content getting a print publication dropped in their driveway without paying?  The answer is yes, we are.

I sometimes question what value we put on our own products. We need to carefully consider if the current carrier of preprints we use is the right vehicle or not. Are we better off not offering a free news product and instead using a 55-pound single broadsheet wrap? What about selling the wrap to an advertiser at a discounted rate and making non-subscribers pay for news? Will this encourage non-subscribers to pay for the news and advertising preprints they’re missing?

Circulation/Distribution. The decisions we’ve made that have brought us to this point now fall on making a choice between mailing a TMC (very expensive) or using and existing or dedicated carrier force. I hate to say it, but I see this as the weak link in our TMC processes.

Many years ago, there was a TV show in which a magician exposed to the audience the trade’s biggest secrets; no big surprise that he fell out of favor with his comrades quickly. I’m not going to take that approach with an industry that has supported me over the years any further than saying, reliable delivery is only as good as the people you have working for you and put your trust in to complete that delivery.  All the labor and expense on the front-end can be moot if TMCs don’t get to its final destination.

Many of our TMCs used to be mailed. The cost of postage has made this prohibitive for most properties. Most of us have shifted over to carrier delivery and use our existing carriers. We’re running the same routes and driving by the homes of non-subscribers anyway, so why not use our own carrier force? It’s an inexpensive alternative to mailing.

The other side of this is advertisers trust the mail and don’t not always trust us, leading many advertisers to stray and many to even start independently mailing their own preprints. If you’re going to use your carrier force or an outside resource for deliveries, make certain to monitor their activity and be confident that delivery is taking place as expected. Being able to assure your advertisers 100 percent that you’re delivering to every non-subscriber is a critical part of maintaining their confidence and building your advertising sales.

In the end, it’s up to you to figure out if your TMC is doing what it’s designed to do. Looking at a spreadsheet and determining if you’ll break even, profitable or fighting a losing battle is the simple part. Determining the value to your advertisers and readers and how that value translates to your sustainability in the market can be the real challenge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *