Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Does it really matter much anymore if newspaper circulation on the decline?


That used to be a magic number, of sorts, for the Chicago Sun-Times. Now, it seems to be the figure that the Chicago Tribune will use to justify its significance.

THAT WAS MY initial reaction to reading the reports Monday about newspaper circulation. Insofar as Chicago’s metro newspapers are concerned, the Tribune sells an average of 501,202 copies on a weekday, while the Sun-Times sells 312,141 copies.

The “spin” I saw being put on this happening is that the Tribune experienced a significant decline (about 7.5 percent, compared to one year earlier), while the Sun-Times’ drop was less than half of 1 percent. Could it be that the Sun-Times has bottomed out, and can only go up from here?

Or is the gap between the two newspapers significant enough that the Sun-Times has no hope for the future – no matter now mangled the Tribune’s financial situation becomes due to their tie to all those other media properties across the country?

Actually, it was that Tribune circulation figure of just over half a million copies of the newspaper sold that caught my attention. Because it is so far below the paper’s glory days (I can remember the early 1980s when the Tribune sold about 700,000 copies of the paper on weekdays, and the Sun-Times matched that with about 650,000 copies sold).

EVEN INTO THE years not so long ago, the Sun-Times was able to claim they sold nearly 500,000 copies on a typical weekday.

Of course, we now know some of those claims were bogus. The executives of Hollinger (the precursor to the Sun-Times News Group who own the newspaper) were so determined to claim that the Sun-Times sold “nearly a half million papers a day” that they were tampering with the circulation figures.

The point was that 500,000 was perceived as some sort of magical figure that justified allowing a newspaper to think of itself as one of the nation’s major media properties.

Go below that, and you lose your right to think of yourself as significant. Or so the logic goes.

BY THAT LOGIC, the Sun-Times got pushed into irrelevance with its declines, although I’d like to think the paper just can’t sink much lower. After all, I do see the reality of news consumers in the Chicago area.

No matter how much Tribune Co. likes to think it dominates the Chicago news racket with its paper, television (over the air and cable) and radio stations and all its other properties, I know fully well there are some people who are determined to get their news from anything other than a Tribune-owned outlet.

So if that means I believe there is a significant market in this metropolitan area for a Number Two newspaper, so be it.

But it also strikes me as humorous to now see the Tribune circulation decline to the level that the Sun-Times once considered to be its “bottom line” standard.

IT MAKES ME wonder what kind of rhetoric we’re going to hear from the Tribune Co. types once the circulation takes another plunge and sinks below the 500,000 level. Will we start getting all kinds of spin about how “significant” the quality of their readership (no matter how small) truly is?

Or will the Tribune types start hyping the value of their Sunday editions (the ones that have larger-than-weekday circulations, even if they no longer sell 1 million-plus copies per Sunday)?

Actually, what is to be said about the Tribune’s circulation is that its percentage decline of 7.5 percent compared to one year earlier is totally in line with the newspaper industry average (the Audit Bureau of Circulation says the average newspaper in this country experienced a 7.1 percent drop).

Which would make the Sun-Times one of the “success” stories of the newspaper industry (only a 0.04 percent decline) this year. Except their business has so many other problems that the fact their circulation has more or less leveled off doesn’t seem to be enough to assure their future success.

I’LL BE THE first to admit that these observations of the newspaper industry in Chicago are the mere ramblings of an amateur – albeit one who has worked on the fringes of the Chicago news racket for some two full decades.

I don’t know which paper (if either) is going to survive as a business entity. I’m not sure what will replace them in terms of being able to generate the huge amounts of news copy that winds up feeding the beast for the countless broadcast and Internet outlets that claim to cover the news in the Second City.

And perhaps it is silly to pay much attention to the actual circulation figures these days – since they measure the number of actual copies of the newspaper sold at a time when many people believe that the focus of the industry ought to be increasing the number of eyeballs that bother to check out a newspaper’s website.

After all, doing things to improve the quality of news content in ways that more people will want to read the website will have long-term effects.

THE REALITY OF the situation these days is that newspapers ought to be judged by a combination of their actual circulation and the number of hits on their website. That figure likely would show that more people are reading the copy published by these entities than they were in the days when the number of copies sold was at its all-time high.

Of course, that wouldn’t provide the negative image that some Internet-only operations (the ones that don’t like to admit they’d be lost without newspapers to feed off of) want to use to portray the newspaper industry these days.

So maybe I’m guilty of reading newspaper circulation figures the same way some people get all excited about what was served for dinner on the night that the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The two Chicago metro newspapers now sell barely more copies on a typical weekday (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=33839) than the Chicago Tribune used to sell all on its own.

1 comment:

Monroe Anderson said...

Gregory: I think you've hit on something here. Newspapers should be measured by the actual circulation and the number of views on their website for two reasons.

One, that approach provides a clearer understanding of how many readers are looking at them.

Two, that approach will be invaluable in tracking the natural progression from print to online readership.