Newspaper circulation's downward spiral

Newspapers circulation is nosediving and subscription rates increases credited with stanching some of the red ink will only accelerate the decline.

Reading two newspapers every morning makes me smarter although fewer Americans feel like me.

Daily newspaper circulation declined by an average of 10.62 per cent during the six months between April and September from the corresponding period a year ago, according to figures released this week by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). The figures are for 379 U.S. newspapers.

Monday through Friday circulation for my newspaper, the Boston Globe, plunged 18.48 per cent. The L.A. Times dipped 11.05 percent; N.Y. Times, 7.28 per cent; Chicago Tribune, 9.72 per cent; and the S.F. Chronicle  led the top 25 with a breathless 25.82 per cent nosedive.

Of the top 25, only the Wall Street Journal managed to eke out a gain which was a 0.61 per cent. Update: Despite the good news, the WSJ announced on Oct. 29 that it will shutter its Boston bureau with 12 reporters by the end of the year.  

For all the miscreants who do not buy newspapers and hence, do not support news organizations, think about this: when you go to Google news to get the latest, what comes up? That's right: stories from the L.A. Times, N.Y. Times, Wall Street Journal and  Washington Post. You rely on these trusted sources which usually get it right. Sadly, you don't feel compelled to dig into your pockets and support them (if my harping sounds a bit like public radio pandering, it's intended to).

I'll step off my high horse now and look at it another way. I punch in Flight 188 into Google News and up comes 5,719 stories related to the Northwest A320 jetliner that overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles. Something's wrong here. Do we really that need many stories that largely say the same thing? Sure, we need different perspectives and angles, but 1,000 stories would amply cover that base.

Publishers have been complaining about story duplication within their own ranks for years. Now we have Google News to illustrate just how inefficiently we gather and report the news (this post will shortly be added to the "524 articles" on the ABC's latest numbers).

Another interesting angle in much of the coverage of the ABC's latest numbers credits hikes in newsstand and home delivery rates for stanching some of the red ink. Huh!? Let's me see. Fewer readers and higher prices. Now's that's putting the death spiral pedal to the metal. I recall Globe executives saying how pleased they were with how circulation held up following dramatic subscription increases that went into effect June 2.

Globe customer service gave me the rundown (the rep was in the Philippines). Daily home delivery within the "metro" Boston area went from $37 to $49. Outside the metro area, rates went up 38.7 per cent from $38 to $62 (that's me). The newsstand price went from 75 cents to a dollar.

The annual subscription that I renewed for $408.72 in February will be $685.36 next time around. With an increase like that, renewal will not be automatic although there are periodic discounts .

As a lifelong member of the fourth estate, I know how dedicated these news organization are, but there's little standing in the way of more dramatic declines. Short term, higher prices help stop the bleeding on the balance sheet, but accelerate the decline in circulation as renewals come due.

It wasn't bad across the board as some smaller papers managed to eke out gains. Circulation at the Las Vegas Review-Journal was up 6.56 per cent. Womens Wear Daily was up 14.31 per cent. But the overall trend is steeply downward.

What will happen is more of same. Staffs will be continue to be cut as newspapers right size. Coverage and depth will shrink. It's not a pretty picture for pressmen, reporters or publishers.

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