The Danville Register & Bee is one of six Lee Enterprises newspapers in Virginia to announce a reduced print schedule. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Six local newspapers in Virginia, including three in Southwest and Southside, will reduce their print publication frequency to just three days a week starting next month, according to announcements the newspapers published Sunday. They’re among the latest of at least 30 papers around the country owned by Lee Enterprises that have announced such changes.

Starting June 27, the Bristol Herald Courier, The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, the (Culpeper) Star-Exponent, the (Danville) Register & Bee, the Martinsville Bulletin, and The (Waynesboro) News Virginian will publish “expanded” print editions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and will deliver them by postal mail rather than using traditional newspaper carriers, according to the newspapers’ announcements.

All currently publish seven days a week except the Bulletin, which does not have a print edition on Saturdays, and the Star-Exponent, which does not publish print editions on Mondays and Saturdays.

Circulation numbers

These are the circulations of the Lee Enterprises daily newspapers in Virginia cutting back to three times a week publication:

The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress: 11,107 daily; 11,621 Sunday

Bristol Herald Courier:
9,727 daily; 9,851 Sunday

Martinsville Bulletin:
5,517 daily; 5,887 Sunday

(Danville) Register & Bee:
4,298 daily; 4,982 Sunday

Culpeper Star-Exponent:
2,986 daily; 2,917 Sunday

The (Waynesboro) News Virginian: 2,122 daily; 2,241 Sunday

These are the circulations of Lee Enterprises dailies in Virginia that remain dailies:

Richmond Times-Dispatch:
57,695 daily; 61,757 Sunday

Roanoke Times:
24,889 daily; 25,794 Sunday

The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star:
15,825 daily; 17,176 Sunday

The (Lynchburg) News & Advance: 9,788 daily; 10,822 Sunday

Source: Lee Enterprises Annual Report for fiscal year ended Sept. 25, 2022

“Every print day, you’ll experience a ‘Sunday’ reading experience that’s bursting with local news and opinions, investigative and watchdog journalism, personalities and profiles, sports stories that take you beyond the results of the game and a deeper look at the businesses and market leaders in our community and the world around us,” according to the papers’ announcements, which said the print editions will have more content, sections and pages than before.

The papers will include comics and puzzles from each day of the week in the three print editions. On the three print days, the E-Editions — digital replicas of the print editions — will mirror the print newspapers, and on the non-print days, the E-Editions will present “a condensed version of our traditional daily news report,” the newspapers said.

Bristol Mayor Neal Osborne said in an email to Cardinal News on Sunday that print media “is in a period of uncertainty and difficulty, and it’s unfortunate that the Bristol Herald Courier’s ownership has had to go this route.”

“Local newspapers are the backbone of reporting in-depth stories on issues that matter a whole lot to local residents,” he said. “While this is an unfortunate turn of events, I have full faith in the team at the Bristol Herald Courier to persevere through this and continue to deliver the quality journalism our region has become accustomed to.”

Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones noted in an email, “In many communities across the country, newspapers have ceased operations entirely.

“I worked at the Register & Bee for 19 years and saw the transitioning of newspapers from home deliveries by neighborhood paper boys & girls delivering to residential porches and garages to car drivers throwing the newspaper as close to the home as they could get them,” he wrote. “So we are thankful that the Danville Register & Bee will continue to serve, along with other media outlets to the residents and visitors in our city and surrounding areas.”

Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises (NASDAQ:LEE) acquired the newspapers in March 2020 from Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary BH Media. Lee’s other newspapers in Virginia, also acquired from BH Media in the same deal, include the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star and The (Lynchburg) News & Advance.

(Disclosure: Cardinal News reporter Matt Busse is a former Lee Enterprises employee; he most recently worked as managing editor of The News & Advance.)

As of Sunday, at least 30 of Lee Enterprises’ more than 75 daily newspapers have announced such changes. The newspapers’ announcements use mostly identical wording, with some differences to account for the individual papers’ names and the dates the changes will take effect, and sometimes highlighting history and journalistic efforts specific to their publications.

The first to make such an announcement came in February from The Press of Atlantic City, in New Jersey. Other newspapers that have followed suit with announcements this month include The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, South Carolina; the Dothan Eagle in Alabama; the Waco Tribune in Texas; and the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin.

Lee’s weekly newspapers have not been immune to changes, either. In December, Laker Weekly, which covered Smith Mountain Lake, published its last edition. The paper’s coverage now is part of The Roanoke Times. The weekly Washington County News’ E-Edition was last updated Jan. 11.

Lee’s daily newspapers in recent years have also ceased publishing print editions on major holidays, including Memorial Day.

The changes reflect an ongoing challenge across the newspaper industry. As customers increasingly prefer digital media to get their news, print newspaper subscriptions continue to decrease — and as they go, so do the higher advertising and subscription revenues that print products have historically offered compared to digital subscriptions and website traffic.

In a conference call with investors May 4, following the release of Lee Enterprises’ second-quarter earnings, Tim Millage, Lee’s vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer, said the company has “been able to retain a lot more of our print subscribers and more of our print subscription revenue relative to others in the industry.”

Nonetheless, Millage said while responding to a question submitted online by an unidentified conference call attendee, the company is “seeing unit declines accelerating in 2023, resulting in revenue trends closer to what the rest of the industry has seen for a couple of years.”

“You may have seen we did announce in one of our markets to move to produce a robust, high-quality print product three days a week,” Millage said during the May 4 call, an apparent reference to The Press of Atlantic City’s February announcement. “And we’re evaluating our print products with the goal of continuing to provide our local communities with robust, high-quality local news and the best possible print product in our local markets, at the same time as managing the cash flow and these revenue streams as they mature.”

A recent article in Editor & Publisher, a trade publication focused on the news industry, addressed the potential impacts of reducing print publication frequency.

Among other sources, the article cited John Newby — a publisher, consultant and national columnist as well as the founder of 360 Media Alliance and Truly-Local — who noted that while fewer print days means lower costs for newsprint, labor and distribution, some of that savings would likely be offset by a loss of subscribers.

Newby also told Editor & Publisher that the success of a print-reduction campaign depends on a newspaper company’s communication and transparency with its readers — and what it does with the added profit.

“The real problem I see in the industry is that few actually reinvest those savings back into the product,” Newby said, according to the E&P article. “It goes to stabilize the bottom line. If the newly found revenue is not invested back into the product, all you have done is extract from your product, providing the reader with a less delightful reading experience.”

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...