The dark cloud inside the silver lining of the dark cloud

The New York Times tries to find some good news in the newspaper industry’s dreadful circulation report but moments later, I see a Poynter analyst at blowing the foam off that latte.

Says The Times:

For starters, those circulation figures may not be as dire as they sound. A “significant portion” of the drop “results directly from the industry’s long-term, and arguably long-overdue, initiative to eliminate inefficient vanity and promotional circulation,” writes Allen Mutter on his blog, Confessions of a Newsosaur.

That means newspaper companies are cutting out discounted subscriptions, free papers at hotels and delivery to far-flung locales, none of them particularly appealing to advertisers and increasingly seen as not worth the cost.

Counters Poynter’s Rick Edmonds (my emphasis):

Yet there’s more to the story. [The Audit Bureau of Circulations] further breaks down paid circulation into categories of “over 50 percent” and “25 to 50 percent” of the paper’s cover price. [That is, highly discounted sales – jj] Merrill Lynch analyst Lauren Rich Fine plugged in those figures for a sample of the mid-sized and large papers of public companies and the results were clear: even these losses reported to ABC were achieved with a lot of deep discounting.

In other words fully paid circulation is typically falling even faster than the overall totals reported this week. Apparently, newspaper companies trying to bolster the numbers either pushed deeply discounted introductory offers at readers or extended discounts they were already offering many subscribers rather than trying to convert them to fully paid.

Suzy Sunshine Times:

Just as the lackluster circulation numbers were being dissected, the Newspaper Association of America released the results of a study it commissioned showing that when Internet readership is counted, the newspaper audience is actually way up — nearly 8 percent over all from February 2005 to March 2006.

Chicken Little Poynter:

A closer look at those numbers, however, underscores the difficulty of the industry’s current business dilemma. If you divide that monthly total into a daily one, there were roughly 1.9 million people visiting newspaper web sites each day in September. By the same calculation, the average time spent online would be about 1.4 minutes per day. (A recent NAA/Scarborough study estimated that the typical reader spends a little less than 30 minutes with the daily edition of the printed newspaper and more than 45 minutes on Sunday.) Those numbers may not be big enough to really make up for the loss in circulation.

Also, note the irony of The Times complaining:

Cluttered, hard-to-navigate newspaper sites proliferate. And many sites force readers to register, which Internet types say is counterproductive, when those readers can so easily go elsewhere for their news.

If you’d like to read the rest of that story, you will, of course, have to register.

: Newsosaur now punctures a hole in the aforementioned latte cup, pointing out that time spent on newspaper sites compares badly with other sites:

But the 41 minutes spent at newspaper websites in a month is fully 40% lower than the average 1 hour and 40 minutes that visitors linger at the 10 busiest web sites in a month, according to traffic statistics compiled by Nielsen/NetRatings in April.

: And while we’re on the subject of gravity and newspaper circulation, NewsDesigner does a great job of charting circulation against the timing of redesigns. I believe this project was partly inspired by a good post Jay Small wrote arguing that papers are overinvesting in design. As one of the commenters there says, it would also be useful to chart papers that have not had redesigns. But in any case, this demonstrates that redesigns are no cure for what ails papers. As another commenter there said, “We need a new boat.” Or to mix that metaphor: The lipstick ain’t doing it.

  • I did a post earlier challenging Rick’s article. You can’t simply take the past-30-day number and divide by 30. Site usage isn’t that smoothly distributed. Hidden within that number is some percentage of loyal audience who visits habitually.

    That said, the loyal audience number for any single is dreadfully low, so Rick is half right.

  • Re-design for the sake of re-design doesn’t work.

    When we re-designed our paper, we made the A section all local, and made the former “Region” section into a Nation & World wire cover with exploded AP graphics instead of stories, analysis instead of “first day two days later” and speed-reads of other stories.

    When we made the change, our circulation starting going up: Subscribers, single-copy and Web (we have a paid site … I know, I know).

    There is still much more that we can do, but any change we make is to make us stronger on the stuff we do best (local).

  • Mumblix Grumph

    Good news, readers!

    We’re saving paper!

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  • Patricia

    I noted, happily, in the report that our local paper, which reprints articles from the NYT and AP to fuel its open borders, liberal, anti-war, anti-Bush indoctrination, especially now, to swing votes before this upcoming election, has lost as much circulation as the NYT. I guess they want to go down with the mothership.

  • chuck

    The New York Times tries to find some good news in the newspaper industry’s dreadful circulation report…

    Isn’t declining circulation good news? I really don’t see how you can spin this otherwise.

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  • Sheila Taylor

    The NY Times as well as many other papers are not giving us the news but their own ideology as Patricia stated above. It is so slanted to the left that even the good news (i.e. about the economy), the heading is something like “mixed reports on the country’s economy”–really?…when the economy is stronger than it has been since Clinton’s admministration, lowest unemployment, best stock market scenerio, etc. Why won’t the NY TImes admit that the President was right (cutting taxes, etc.)?…AND this is the economy despite 9/11, the hurricanes, and the war on terror! I don’t have much respect for any media who does not tell it like it is and never gives President Bush credit no matter what. They will find the dark cloud in any of this administration’s silver lining. ‘Even if he “saved the world,” they would find fault!’ is how I put it. Bottom line–newspaper sales are dropping because most newspapers and especially the NY Times are spinning the news to suit their agenda that is radical left! Wake up and smell the coffee, NY Times!

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