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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 26, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    Code red for US newspapers

    Hugh Linehan

    Bleak. Black. Bleeding awful. On the face of it, the latest newspaper circulation figures from the US make for woeful reading if you work in the print news media. According to Editor & Publisher, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reported that, for the 379 newspapers filing with the organisation, average daily circulation plunged 10.6% year-on-year. Sunday circulation for 562 reporting newspapers was down 7.4%.

    When you drill down to results for some of the best-known American newspapers, the picture looks even worse. The San Francisco Chronicle lost more than a quarter of its daily sales, down 25.8% to 251,782. The Boston Globe’s daily circulation decreased 18.4% to 264,105.

    By any standard, these are horrendous numbers, although, as the E&P report points out, there are some mitigating factors:

    “There are several reasons as to why circulation keeps dropping, aside from former readers who have kicked the print edition to the curb. Publishers have been purposely pulling back on certain types of circulation, including hotel, employee and third-party sponsored copies. No longer are they distributing newspapers to the outer reaches of the core market. The cost of delivery and the cost of materials have forced publishers to scale back (…) Several major newspapers across the country have aggressively hiked prices of single-copy and home-delivered papers in search of circulation revenue and a renewed focus on loyal readers. Circulation is guaranteed to go down as prices go up, but publishers have opted to wring more revenue from readers as advertisers keep their coffers closed.”

    So, in the US, newspapers are reducing bulks and freebies, pushing up cover prices and focusing on their core markets. Fair enough, although even if you strip all that out, the numbers are still scary.

    What lessons, if any, can be learned from the American experience for those of us plying our trade elsewhere? Well, it’s always worth pointing out that the US model doesn’t automatically translate to other countries. There are certain local peculiarities – longstanding metropolitan monopolies, over-leveraged companies – which don’t always pertain in other parts of the world. However, the most fundamental underlying trends – declining print circulation, readers and advertisers migrating to the internet – are pretty much universal in the industrialised world (developing countries are another story). In Ireland, these movements have been slower, but they’re still there. One thing’s certain: there will be blood.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Your conclusion (that there will be blood) reminds me of the old riddle: what is black and white and ‘red’ all over? The figures are daunting but not yet decisive. Having a strong online presence will probably help a great deal, as will soliciting and acting on readers’ ideas about how to improve both the print and digital formats — as you have recently done.

      In a short essay on the history of American general-interest magazines, Neil Postman wrote: “we may draw a small measure of optimism from the fact that there is no result of media change so inevitable that we can speak with certainty of the future. The study of media history reveals — time and again — that there are always surprises in store.”

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Stan: according to the Daily Show, what’s black and white and red all over is the New York Times’s balance sheet. If you’re saying, as I think you are, that we are in a period where absolutely nobody knows how things will work out, then I agree. That in itself is a nightmarish scenario for those trying to plan long-term strategy against a background of plummeting revenues. But personally I’ve always appreciated William Goldman’s dictum (about movies) that ‘nobody knows anything’. I believe in what we do as journalists. I believe there will continue to be a need for it. I believe that there will still be a market to pay for it. I also believe it will change fundamentally over the next decade. Part of that change will involve ‘blood’: the extinguishing of longstanding media institutions and of many cherished beliefs about how journalism works.

    • Simon McGarr says:

      Shouldn’t the Irish Times be changing so fast to keep ahead of extinction that we hear doppler shifts every time we turn the page?

    • Ed McGuinness says:

      Too rarely do journalists work hard enough for their reader’s loyalty. Reciting their subject’s commentary without doing any investigation themselves can get more then a little dull.

      NYT still has many moments of brillance. Here in Chicago the Tribune has simple gone to hell it seems.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hugh: Thanks for your response. Yes, I agree with your points. (Though I didn’t see that episode of The Daily Show.)

      It may be the vanity of each age to imagine itself in the midst of cataclysmic change, but there is no denying the extent and pace of current transformations. Luckily, at least for some, great changes present opportunities for considerable structural and other improvements. The news industry is strongly tech-driven, and the rate of technological change seems unprecedented. Successful adaptation to new modes of mass communication seems crucial. At least, with the likes of Twitter, the tech has a fairly friendly face!

    • Mark says:

      True to the old dictum “If it bleeds it leads”! I think what we are seeing here are changing habits – not so much economic habits (the old argument about a cup of coffee costing more than a newspaper still stands) but more time habits. Users/readers/consumers have been re-adjusting their day and how they use it, for some time now,and digital media in all its forms has been helping them to make these diary changes – they still want well packaged, good content but obviously in different forms.
      For the important ecomomic/marketing groups (15-50 year olds) newspapers have fallen off the shopping and ‘To do’ lists for some time.
      This is why I think the French initiative of free newspapers for youth is flawed and typically interventionist. Print newspapers don’t interest enough young people often enough to merit economic value.
      So hence we are back to protection of IP and enforcement of copyright – these might be a key way of protecting the ‘newspaper’ business. Good,and unique content,is still key.
      ‘The Irish Times’,for example,is what you would call a ‘lighthouse’ brand with international recognition and I would hope a very long life ahead of it.
      Would it really matter if ,one day, one of Rupert Murdoch’s men came along and said “Look,we are launching something similar to the BSkyB platform,so do you want to be on it? We are going to charge households in the same way that we charge for pay TV,and consumers get to choose in what form they consume the content whether it’s from ‘The Irish Times’ or ‘The Sunday Times’ .It just goes on the monthly bill.”
      (No vested interest here,by the way!)

    • Patrick says:

      Many newspapers lack the real news which is costing them. Why by a newspaper that lacks news and or is slanted? The internet has it all and it is news of the present. I stop the newspaper in my city in the USA account the paper lacked news as well as being close minded on certain things with some of their writers. Now they are hurting and offering their paper at a low rate. The younger people look for the news on TV or the internet. My advice is to print the real news and be open minded on all.

    • paul m says:

      dont worry e-readers will change your fortunes. you just have to decide which ship to bundle yourself in with. I believe you’ve gone for the Kindle?

      I would have waited to see what the big tech boys had to show first. affordable pay per view is going to be a goldmine on these machines.


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