Tag Archives: online publishing

More Thoughts on U.S. Circulation Declines

I’ve more thoughts about the accelerating declines in circulations of major U.S. newspaper:

  • Many newspaper executives are blaming the new Do-Not-Call anti-telemarketing lists for a large portion of their newspapers’ recent circulation declines. That is disingenous. In reality, the blame should be placed on those executives’ and their products. Major daily newspapers in the U.S. have huge churn rates. The Newspaper Association of America has long reported that large dailies (those with more than 400,000 weekday circulation) generally have 50 to 60 percent subscriber churn rates each year. That is why those newspapers have had to feverishly telemarket for new subscribers

    In other words, the average large newspaper loses more than half of its subscribers each year. Think of that: a product that is aimed at consumers but that loses half of its consumers each and every year. There is a problem with that product. And that problem surely isn’t Do-Not-Call lists.

  • Newspaper executives also explained the recent declines as partly due to newspapers that “deliberately reduced third-party-sponsored home delivery, in which advertisers and businesses pay for the subscriptions” and on newspapers that have “cut back on single-copy bulk sales.” (I’m quoting Tuesday’s The Wall Street Journal story about the declines).

    What are ‘single-copy bulk sales’? One example is when unsolicited copies of USATODAY are slipped under hotel guests’ doors. The newspapers pays hotel to distribute these copies.

    What is ‘third-party-sponsored home delivery’? It’s when consumers are given free subscriptions that newspaper advertisers or affiliates underwrite.

    Long ago, the Audit Bureau of Circulation would have penalized any newspapers that claimed these types of copy dumpings were circulation, but the ABC a decade ago yielded to newspapers and began counting these unsolicited copies as circulation. The rational is that ‘single-copy bulk sales’ and copies from ‘third-party-sponsored home delivery’ are paid circulation because someone — just not the consumers — has paid for those copies.

  • Another method by which newspapers dump copies and count those copies as circulation is the Newspapers in Education program. Decades ago, NIE programs were started as a way to get school children into the habit of reading newspapers. Most people who today administer NIE programs still think that is the purpose (but see below). Decades ago, the average newspaper provided only a few hundred copies per day to schools. Today, those newspapers provide thousands or tens of thousands copies daily. I know of newspapers at which NIE accounts for ten percent or more of circulations.

    Are these increases in NIE circulations due to more youngsters reading newspapers? Certainly not! Most of those NIE copies are unread. The increases in NIE circulations are due to newspaper circulation executives realizing that NIE copies are counted by the ABC as paid circulation, even though no one pays for those copies.

    (My friend Stuart Garner, the former CEO of Thomson newspapers, once said that if there is one obviously unsuccessful program in the newspaper industry, it is NIE. Well, it’s obviously unsuccesful at its stated aim: getting more young people to read newspapers. But it’s secretly been successful as a method of artificially boosting newspapers circulations.)

  • Finally, after Steve Yelvington pointed to my post yesterday about the circulation declines, a reader of his blog remarked, “In the world of Instant NEWS the traditional News will continue to loss its value proposition. Newspaper is bound to become a Niche medium.”

    No, that reader’s predictions aren’t necessarily true or ineluctible. Newspapers shouldn’t be any longer limited to the capacities of paper and can again become people’s main source of breaking news. The problem is been that few newspaper executives realize this.

    Electronic publishing — whether by Web sites today or the type of instantly updatible wireless e-paper shown in the science fiction film ‘Minority Report’ — has the potential to let newspapers publish news as instantly as radio and TV do now. Online newspaper can publish news with all of the audio and video capabilities of radio and television plus with the detailed texts that TV and radio lack. Unfortunately, few newspaper Web sites nowadays update more than once per day. What a waste!

    Last month, a publisher told me, “We know that our readers these days get most of their news from television, so we want our newspaper to contain not so much breaking news as analysis and commentary and thoughtful features.” Many newspaper industry analysts see that as an eluctible and necessary trend for the newspaper industry. I disagree. I see that as surrendering newspapers as vehicles for breaking news when instead victory is nearly in hand.

    The Web is a wonderful retrieval vehicle but it doesn’t actually deliver anything, and what it delivers is limited to single iterative pages of HTML (even with CSS). It lacks the portability and layout capabilities of paper. The alternative of digital editions (i.e. electronic facsimiles of newsprint editions) offers the layout capabilites and multiple pages of an entire intact edition, but most digital editions today (such as those from Newsstand.com and Zinio) use huge,non-interactive files downloaded onto desktop, laptop, or tablet PCs, devices that lack the portability and convenience of newsprint. Plus, everything today is becoming wireless, but current handheld devices (mobile phones and PDAs) don’t have screens large enough to read much easily.

    However, by the end of this decade, electronic paper and highspeed wireless broadband (in the forms of 3G, UTMS, or WiFi G) should be in consumer use. That e-paper will be certainly wireless. If publishers can create interactive digital editions that don’t use huge file sizes (why are today’s digital editions sent in 300 dpi resolution when PC screens can’t render more than 72 dpi?) and automatically deliver those files to subscribers, using the type of subcarriers that SMS and MMS transmissions use today, then the instantly updatible wireless news-e-paper of ‘Minority Report’ becomes a reality and revolutionizes the newspaper industry. It’s what I’m working towards. I only wish that the newspaper industry was, too.

    Someone tell me if it is?