Mutter's FAS-FAX Analysis: Coming Clean About Circ -- Painfully

By: Mark Fitzgerald The good news behind the dismal declines posted in this latest reporting period is that metro dailies are finally coming clean about the size of their markets.

One pattern that emerges is that much of the circulation losses are coming from self-imposed cuts on third-party circulation, or from sales outside core markets, says Alan D. Mutter, the San Francisco-based technology consultant, and former newspaper editor.

After noting the accepted wisdom that young people simply aren't picking up the paper these days, Mutter said in an interview Monday: ?Having said that, everybody I?m talking to has gotten very serious about getting down to their true fighting weight.?

Of course, newspapers have been saying that now going on two years. They?ve been swearing they are on a diet ever since Wall Street analysts began questioning the value of copies read by travelers or pupils in classrooms, but paid for by other people. ?Quality circulation,? the analysts have been saying for some time now, also does not include copies sold far from the core market.

So, two years later, can they still be wringing circulation out? Mutter, for one, thinks so.

?I think the point of this all is there?s just that much fluff still in the system,? Mutter said.

Newspapers are taking different approaches to shrinking this ?unnecessary? circulation. Most cut a little at a time, explaining the 2% to 3% declines that appear most frequently on the list of this reporting period?s top 25 papers.

?If you plot these things, there are steps? in the decline, Mutter noted. ?Now some people, like Belo, obviously skipped about three steps.?

Last April, just after the March 31 Audit Bureau of Circulations reporting deadline, Belo?s Dallas Morning News announced it would no longer distribute beyond a 200-mile radius from downtown Dallas. Earlier this year, the Morning News pared its sales area down to a 100-mile radius. (Dallas did not report in the 2006 spring FAS-FAX because of an audit related to overreported circulation.)

According to the FAS-Fax released Monday, Morning News circulation plummeted 14.27% to 411,919 Mondays through Fridays, and 13.33% to 563,079 on Sundays.

?Dallas has been in denial until now, and they said let?s just do it -- let?s take a cold shower,? Mutter said.

The Morning News reported ?other? paid circulation of 35,433, down substantially from its publisher statement in March of 2005 when ?other? amounted to 46,976, about 10% of its total paid circulation.

It?s a painful but necessary process to ensure that the paper is going to people valuable to its advertisers, Mutter said.

?If the newspaper industry cannot get straight with itself and its advertisers, then it's?really going to lose the lose the confidence of (its advertiser) market,? he said.


Related E&P Stories:

-- FAS-FAX Circ Numbers for the Top 25 Dailies and Sunday Papers

-- ABC Reveals Big Drops in Circ in Spring 2007

-- NAA Analysis of ABC Confirms Overall Circ Slide


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