By: Jennifer Saba
Since I started scanning newspaper circulation numbers two years ago, my eyesight, according to doctors, has deteriorated. But in early June after another upgraded prescription, I decided to risk all by venturing where few have dared to go: the microscopic listings in the spreadsheet version of the first full FAS-FAX “day-of-the-week” report.
This FAS-FAX report for the six months ending March 2006 marks the first time that all newspapers with a circulation of more than 25,000 must break out the numbers for every day of the week.
Day-of-week reporting is reserved for the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ Excel version of the FAS-FAX ? an even more unwieldy document than the PDF file, and containing substantially more data.
Each listed paper inspires 35 columns of detail. If they choose to wade in, advertisers can finally get the lowdown on which days provide the most readers (if not why). In addition to providing the overall numbers, the report breaks out the stats for each day, showing the number of third-party sponsored copies, other-paid circulation, employee copies, and so forth.
It’s conventional newspaper wisdom that as the week creeps by, circulation increases. Mondays and Tuesdays are supposed to be slow days, because readers are hungover from consuming the Sunday paper. Thursdays and especially Fridays perk up due to Going Out Guides or weekend sections.
A headache-inducing look at the Monday-through-Saturday numbers bears this out in many cases, but the results are more idiosyncratic than that. For some papers, Monday jumps out as the strongest circ day. Out of nowhere, a Wednesday will whip Friday. In a few instances, some papers nearly doubled their circ on one particular day of the week.
But why? Are newspapers doing anything to level off their circ, or further exploit the most popular days? And perhaps most importantly, do advertisers seem to care that they are getting bonus circ on some days and maybe less than rate card on others?
For now, circulation managers are waiting to see what effect day-of-week reporting may have on newspaper ad rates. Advertisers tend to buy ads on the days that best suit their strategy. But one media buyer hinted that newspapers could start feeling squeezed the next time they sit down to discuss rates.
Interviews reveal that the reasons for these day-to-day variations are many. Sometimes a spike in circ occurs because of Newspapers-in-Education (NIE) copies, because a certain section was emphasized, or because the newspaper shifted its TV guide to another day. Further anomalies can be spurred by special subscription offers. And don’t underestimate the popularity of pro sports.
At the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Monday, believe it or not, is the highest circulation day for the paper. On that day, the paper’s circ is 356,174; that’s 57,633 copies more than its weakest circ day, Tuesday, and about 15,018 copies more than its next best circ day, Saturday.
Jerry Hill, the St. Petersburg Times’ circulation director, cites the paper’s sports section for the increase. He explains that during football season, Sunday-only and weekend subscribers also get the Monday paper since it includes extensive coverage.
Hill says he’s fine with day-of-week reporting because ABC allows publishers to pick a power day: “I think that gives newspapers the flexibility to focus on premium days.”
The same line of attack works for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. One of the Bee’s best circ days is Monday, with 299,078 copies (Friday’s circ is 300,857). Monday is also included in its weekend-subscriber package. When the paper polled its readers asking what day they valued the paper most, “Monday came back stronger than anticipated,” says Senior Vice President of Circulation Dan Schaub.
But Schaub is quick to ask, “How do we make newspapers a must-read each day?” I think that should be the mantra for the industry.”
The San Antonio Express-News took advantage of its rabid sports fans. Senior Vice President/Circulation Scott Frantzen says the paper has a strong Monday because, from the start of football season through the end of Final Four basketball, the day is included in its weekend-subscriber package. Monday and Friday are strongest in circ, at 262,488 and 263,278 respectively, with the other days essentially even.
The Orange County (Calif.) Register occasionally throws weekend subscribers a Monday bonus. Monday also happens to be one of the paper’s best circ days, at 309,162.
At the Register, this circulation is counted under “intermittent subscriptions,” a line broken out in the Publisher’s Statement. They are considered bonus days (and yes, they are paid). For example, the weekend subscriber might get a Monday paper on Memorial Day.
Larry Riley, vice president of circulation at the Register, says that papers can take advantage of this type of circ. He cites an example of a reader getting a Friday “bonus” paper the day after Thanksgiving. The paper alerts advertisers, and the bonus circulation can drive rates higher.
The Huntsville (Ala.) Times experiences a boost on Monday, with 62,257 copies. During other days of the week, circulation hovers in the low-to-mid 50,000 range. The reason, according to Circulation Director Frank Maier, is that on Mondays the paper drops copies to schools participating in its NIE program.
Making headway on other days
At the the Mobile (Ala.) Register, Circulation Director George Markevicz says Fridays get a circ boost to 101,911, partly because its TV guide is included that day.
The Ventura County (Calif.) Star and the Chicago Tribune attribute Thursday circulation booms to their entertainment sections. The Star’s Thursday circ is 95,065, while its softest day is Tuesday with 81,902 copies.
Tribune publisher David Hiller says the paper wanted to increase its circulation on Thursdays by launching the entertainment section “At Play.” The strategy worked. Thursday’s circ surged 57,464 copies this past year to 647,892. While Friday is still the paper’s biggest circ day at 664,986, Thursday was the only day to experience gains.
While the paper made inroads with its Thursday numbers, the other days at the Tribune vary widely. Tuesday’s circ is 459,458 ? which is some 200,000 copies less than Friday. When asked if Tribune was concerned about that difference in circ, a spokeswoman for the company declined comment.
Despite the Monday increases at some newspapers, the general trend holds that circulation advances as the week progresses. The San Francisco Chronicle, which took one of the largest hits in overall circulation this spring with daily down 15%, really gets humming on Wednesdays (403,830) with its popular food section. But Thursday (409,248) and Friday (436,587) are still the two biggest days.
“We see it as selling circulation on the days the customers have the most value and interest in the product,” says Chris Blaser, the Chronicle’s vice president of circulation. One of the most popular frequencies for subscribers is a Wednesday-through-Sunday package where the paper leverages its food, lifestyle, and home sections.
Blaser isn’t uneasy about the variations throughout the week because when print circ is coupled with online traffic, the overall numbers are flat. Furthermore, he feels the Chronicle is in line with other Bay Area papers in terms of strong circulation days.
“While it’s new information for advertisers to digest, nothing has changed with fundamental circulation metrics,” Blaser says, adding that newspapers are only responding to what the consumer wants by offering several different subscription choices. “It has yet to be seen how this will be used by newspapers and advertisers.”
The Record in Stockton, Calif., pushes its Thursday edition ? the paper’s largest circ day, at 64,826 ? by making it part of its weekend-package deal. Also, some NIE copies shifted from Friday to Thursday. Director of Circulation Robert Martin says that this wasn’t part of some grand strategy: In some instances, he says, schools simply wanted the change.
The San Diego Union-Tribune’s circ goes back and forth; Saturday is the strongest day at 362,245 (up 20,157 copies from the same period a year ago). Bill Nagel, vice president/circulation and consumer marketing, says Sunday-only subscribers were “enhanced to include Saturday.”
Little papers, big gains
Even some small papers show interesting differences in their day-to-day numbers. It’s long been believed that circulation at smaller papers shouldn’t fluctuate like it does at metros. That’s why ABC doesn’t require papers with a circ under 25,000 to break out day-of-week, unless any one day (except Sunday) shows a 15% gain or loss in circulation. Most of the smaller papers take advantage of the pass, but some have decided to report, especially if they’re owned by big chains.
The Hanford (Calif.) Sentinel, an afternoon paper owned by Lee Enterprises, has its strongest circ day on Wednesday with 18,190 copies. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, circulation averages about 11,850. Circulation Director Greg Barkley says that on Wednesday the paper rolls three weekly editions (there are six paid weeklies in its family) into the daily.
“Our corporate offices require us to report day-of-week. I feel great,” he laughs. “I’m not going to say anything bad about it.”
But that’s nothing compared to the Sentinel’s sister paper, The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, which manages to nearly double its circulation on Thursdays to 48,046. “About five years ago, we purchased a variety of weekly newspapers and converted them to paid,” says Karl Wurzbach, the Herald’s vice president of circulation and production. The paper distributes those weeklies on Thursday.
Wurzbach explains that duplicated readers ? those who get both the daily and weekly papers ? are taken into account when figuring ad rates. But if someone gets only the weekly paper, advertisers are charged if they want to reach that subscriber. “The measure of our success is that subscribers want the product and advertisers like the additional reach,” he says.
Not all papers have days that stick out. Many are even-keeled. Mark Henschen, director of circulation at the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., makes a point of focusing on all seven days. Only after Lee purchased the paper about four years ago did it decide to offer a Sunday-only package. The paper averages about 90,000 copies with a difference of only 1,785 copies between Monday and Friday.
“We have chosen to not do what many papers have done, which is going with [an emphasis on] Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” Henschen says. “We really do believe in our product seven days a week.”
The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, runs several subscriber packages ? Monday through Friday, Monday through Saturday, seven days, weekend only, and Sunday only ? but its circ doesn’t bounce around all that much. The paper experiences a difference of only 821 copies between Monday and Friday. “We don’t do a lot with circulation in the other-paid category,” says Vice President/Circulation Scott Swenson. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t see as many spikes.”
How will advertisers react?
Day-of-week reporting has been in the works for several years, and it’s intended to provide advertisers more transparency and ease of comparison. In the past, publishers were pretty much free to report Clint Eastwood-style ? every which way but loose ? choosing the frequencies that showed the strongest gains.
“I think it’s good,” says Tony Traven, circulation director at the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., about the ABC’s new approach. “It levels the playing field as far as what newspapers are reporting.”
Newspapers fought the rule because there was ? and still is ? concern that advertisers will use weak days to push for lower rates. “Advertisers are smart,” says Jon Wiley, vice president of circulation at The Herald in Bradenton, Fla. “It’s not like they haven’t been able to get this information in the past, but now they don’t have to go through great lengths to get it. If I were an advertiser, I would want to know this information. It’s going to be a wake-up call for some circulation departments.”
Mort Goldstrom, vice president of advertising at the Newspaper Association of America, explains that papers traditionally give advertisers one daily rate and one Sunday rate. The Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News, he says, are two papers that have been experimenting with pricing by section, but the trial is still in the early stages. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he notes, does price ads for different days of the week.
“There are way fewer that charge for different days of the week,” Goldstrom says. That could come to an end now that advertisers have daily circulation numbers at their fingertips.
Of course, papers could beat them to the punch and take advantage of lighter days, giving advertisers discounts to bring them into the fold. Rates at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal vary across days.
“We offer some attractive pricing on Monday and Tuesday for advertisers,” says Circulation Director Keith Petty. At least in this one market, it proves that circulation levels don’t really mean much to advertisers. Even though circulation at the Journal holds steady from day to day (around 85,000), the paper still discounts in order to attract advertisers to the paper on light days.
“Monday and Tuesday don’t fit the shopping pattern,” says Petty. “Wednesday fits the shopping pattern particularly for grocery stores. I’m not sure how much that is going to change with day-of-week reporting.”
Jeff Brinley, circulation director at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, isn’t too worried about the new reporting standard for much the same reason. He says he hasn’t heard the advertising department voicing concerns about gaps in circulation ? but then, the Statesman’s circ varies at most by 4,290 copies in a week (its average daily circ is 63,809). “I think advertisers are fairly sophisticated and understand their customer’s buying habits,” he adds.
The Union-Tribune’s Nagel is not distressed about the fluctuations either. “Circulation volumes are simply one metric among many that we use to gauge interest in our products,” he says, adding that when all the products are considered, including its Web site, the Union-Tribune reaches more than 75% of the market in a week.
Even if a paper experiences dramatic differences in day-to-day circulation, media buyer George Janson says he looks more at the trending data. “Is there something else going on in that market?” asks Janson, managing partner/director of print at the agency Mediaedge:cia. “Is it just that newspaper, or is it a pattern for the industry as a whole?”
Jerry Della Femina, chairman and CEO of ad agency Della Femina Rothschild Jeary and Partners, also has his doubts about the industry. “It’s fine if newspapers want to break [circulation] down to the day, but I think newspapers have a bigger problem. My kids aren’t reading them. Not just that they are not reading them on Mondays and Tuesdays, but any time,” he says.
Della Femina, who also owns the free East Hampton (N.Y.) Independent, says that more and more of his clients are asking what his agency can do for them on the Internet: “In short, the world has changed and newspapers haven’t changed.”