Ending the Pollyanna Party Line on Circulation

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E&P Editorial

Now what? You might expect that to be the industry reaction to the results of the latest FAS-FAX report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. After all, the bottom line of all those top-line Publisher’s Statements would seem to be clear: What newspapers are doing to sell copies doesn’t seem to be working, including (at least so far) all the new stuff.

But, then, if you’re reading E&P, no doubt you are familiar with the great newspaper industry tradition of explaining away flat or declining circulation results. The weather was too cold, or too hot. Our local team didn’t make the playoffs. There was no Big Story or, as now, there were too many Big Stories. How else to explain declining sales at a time when the sons and daughters of newspaper hometowns were marching into Baghdad? Or why the circulations of nearly every California metro daily were flat or worse during a period when the entire state was riveted on the recall election circus?

The Pollyanna party line that is shaping up about this FAS-FAX is that newspapers have “stopped the erosion” in circulation. That, of course, assumes an awful lot about the future. But it’s an especially lame response at a time when newspapers have actually bestirred themselves to do something about reaching all those non-readers and former readers.

This time around, remember, newspapers were going to need no excuses. Venerable chains such as Tribune Co. were innovating like start-ups, launching alternative papers for kids and Spanish speakers. Certainly, it is way too early to render any final judgment on the success of these efforts. But in this FAS-FAX, only one daily posted big increases because of a new idea — and it’s one most newspapers can’t imitate. The Wall Street Journal recorded the highest circulation in its 114-year history by adding online-only subscribers who are willing to pay the full freight for its unique content. The only other paper with a dramatic year-over-year circulation increase, the New York Post, mostly earned it the old-fashioned way by cutting its cover price to a quarter.

Far worse were the chilling portents in this FAS-FAX. For one thing, the once-zooming growth of Spanish-language dailies essentially stopped. Nor can the industry take much comfort from the fact that, after a full year of publication, Tribune’s RedEye youth paper is still just another free paper, with only 9,000 copies actually sold on an average day.

Industry leaders are correct in arguing that readership is the better metric for newspapers to emphasize — and not just because the numbers are higher. But without robust circulation, readership must inevitably erode, too. This latest FAS-FAX is a good opportunity to drop the excuses and focus even more on moving the circulation needle in the right direction.

This unsigned editorial appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of E&P.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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