By: MARK FITZGERALD
THE FIRST POST-STRIKE audit of Detroit’s two dailies shows circulation dropped 35% in the 14 months since 2,000 employees walked out. Combined Sunday circulation is down an indicated 31%.
Detroit Newspapers, joint operating agency for Knight-Ridder Inc.’s Detroit Free Press and Gannett Co.’s Detroit News, said an audit by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the three-month period from January through March 1996, found the combined daily net paid average circulation was 576,698.
In its last ABC FAS-FAX Publisher’s Statement before the strike started July 13, 1995, Detroit Newspapers reported a combined daily circulation of 886,228 for the six-month period ended March 31, 1995.
The Audit Bureau put Sunday circulation for the first three months of this year at 769,594.
Sunday circulation in that same prestrike period was 1,107,645, according to the FAS-FAX.
The circulation declines were considerably higher than Detroit Newspaper executives have suggested over the course of the strike. Detroit Newspaper officials had maintained daily circulation was running a combined 675,000 and Sunday 875,000, or down about 24% from prestrike levels.
In a statement, Detroit Newspapers suggested that the papers’ actual circulations were higher ? but that some legitimate subscribers were “reluctant” to admit they were reading the paper because of the continuing high emotions over the strike.
“ABC conducted a truly exhaustive audit of our market, calling literally thousands of subscribers,” said Rob Althaus, Detroit Newspapers senior vice president of circulation. “And, even when it was apparent that the newspapers were being delivered and read, if they could not guarantee 100% that the subscription had been paid, they did not allow us to count the circulation.
“In some cases,” Althaus added, “we found that people were simply reluctant to acknowledge that they are reading the newspapers. Quite frankly, during this rebuilding period, we were more focused on delivering the newspaper to our loyal customers than we were collecting from them. As time has gone by, we have been increasingly successful at re-establishing all of our distribution procedures, including billing and collection.”
Adding copies not counted by the Audit Bureau because payment could not be verified, Detroit Newspapers said “net circulation distributed” for the two papers during the period was a combined 624,980 daily and 844,335 Sunday.
The newspaper agency also suggested that circulation averages from April through August (the months following the audited period) of this year show daily circulation has increased 25,000 copies and Sunday is up an average 18,000.
Those figures were not verified by the Audit Bureau.
The unions’ view
Officials of the six striking unions say the figures prove what they have maintained all along: Detroit Newspapers is delivering thousands of copies of the Free Press and the News to people who do not want the papers.
“Company officials have claimed repeatedly that they are ‘turning the corner’ and that readers are returning to the papers. The facts indicate otherwise. People in this community do not want a paper produced by so-called ‘permanent replacement’ workers,” said Lou Mleczko, president of one of the striking unions, Newspaper Guild Local 22.
A survey commissioned by WXYZ-TV in Detroit in connection with a week-long look at the strike on its first anniversary gave some sense of public feelings about the labor conflict.
The survey found 56% of those polled were reading either the Free Press or the News, while 21% had canceled subscriptions or stopped reading and another 21% never read the papers.
Both sides in the strike could take comfort from the WXYZ survey.
For instance, it showed overall that 43% of respondents generally favor the union in the strike, with just 28% siding with management. Another 29% is undecided or supports neither side. By smaller margins, Detroiters blame management for the strike (36%) rather than the union (24%). Another 23% blame both sides.
However, union solidarity goes only so far even in Detroit: More than half ? 54% ? of union members who bought the papers before the strike continue to buy the paper today, the survey found.
And Detroit residents overwhelmingly blame the unions for the sporadic violence during the strike. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the unions were mostly responsible for strike violence, with just 17% blaming management.
Nearly two-thirds of the 900 surveyed adults said the quality of the two papers is the same as before the strike. Some 24% said they believe the quality has decreased and just 3% said it has improved.
WXYZ, an E.W. Scripps Co. television station, also offered an analysis of the papers’ news coverage by James Buckley, media analyst for M.O.R.-Pace in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Buckley compared the performance of both papers during the same week’s period in 1995 and 1996.
The analyst found both papers have actually increased their local coverage, with the News now devoting 41% more column inches to local coverage and
the Free Press 23.5% more column inches. However, Buckley also said
coverage at both papers is “generic . . . routine . . . [and] stale” with fewer enterprise stories.