Shoptalk: Does Size Really Matter?

By: Jay Schiller

I started working in circulation as a district manager, before newspapers were outsourcing most of their subscription-solicitation efforts. A couple of times each week, the district managers were supposed to round up some of the kid carriers and go crewing. This was back in the days when kids were a large part of the carrier delivery forces for newspapers.

If I took five kids out crewing, my goal was to come back with five… kids, not orders. It didn’t even have to be the same five kids I started with. While newspapers pay anywhere from $15 per order to upward of $100 these days, my kids would only get a few dollars for new orders, or else they’d win prizes.

On one occasion, one of the kids came back to the car in tears. We were crewing in some apartment complexes, and the tearful junior carrier told me that the others were just copying names and addresses off of the mailboxes and turning them in as new starts. He didn?t want to cheat, but, at the same time, he didn’t want to look bad for turning in the fewest orders. I told him just to do his best and not worry about what the others were doing.

This memory comes to mind because today most circulation directors are always under the gun to increase their numbers, regardless of whether the newspapers they work for are in competitive or non-competitive markets. As a district manager, I earned thousands of dollars in cash and prizes (including trips to Europe and Las Vegas) for bringing in new business. Newspapers now pay telemarketing companies and sales crews hundreds of millions of dollars annually to secure subscription orders, their quality not withstanding.

In competitive markets, newspapers that grow circulation exercise bragging rights by printing full-page ads showing their increases and the competition’s losses — even if the winner only went up a few copies and the loser only dropped a few. We live in a world in which cosmetic surgeons earn a good living making people “bigger”; some of today?s more successful circulation directors are skilled cosmetic surgeons in their own right. This raises the question: In circulation, does size matter?

It obviously mattered to Newsday, The Dallas Morning News, Hoy, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Judging by both the pending and the yet-to-be-filed lawsuits, it also matters to newspaper advertisers. When it comes to a choice between circulation quantity and quality, more often than not the newspapers and even the advertisers opt for quantity.

Circulation directors these days live the life of Sisyphus, the mythological character whose fate was to push a rock up an incline over and over again. No matter how high a circulation director pushes his numbers, there is always someone prodding him to push the numbers even higher. And that figure will inevitably slide back down. (I will refrain from mentioning Prometheus, who was chained to a rock where vultures forever ate his regenerating liver.)

Today, circulation directors are expected to grow circulation by hook or by crook, and, if by crook, they’re expected to take the fall if they get caught. The ones who don’t cheat or pile on enough cut-rate circulation to prop up their circulation numbers find themselves in the position of the honest junior carrier I mentioned earlier.

Someone I know who was a circulation director at one major metro (he’s now at another newspaper) answered to a publisher who wanted only full-rate circulation increases. While his peers were throwing on low and no revenue producing ‘Other’ copies (Third Party Home Delivery, Hotel Bulk, and NIE), as well as deeply discounted home delivery subscriptions, the circulation director working for the penurious publisher had his hands tied.

That publisher was both right and wrong. He was right to strive for quality numbers. He was wrong in making the circulation director accountable for an apples-and-oranges comparison of his “quality” distribution to the heavily leveraged “other” and highly discounted numbers of other newspapers. There are a lot of circulation directors who would opt for quality (while letting the numbers drop to more meaningful levels) if it didn’t mean losing their bonuses or their jobs. However, until publisher’s mindsets change, these circulation directors will remain in the closet.

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Published: October 6, 2004

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