Monday, May 23, 2011

The toll of the economic collapse on newspaper circulatio​n (guest essay)

Note: This is the fourth in a series of reports on local newspapers.

by Mark Wilson

The newspaper circulation numbers released two weeks ago by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show a continued attrition among hard copy readers of newspapers from New York’s capital region north to Glens Falls. While the latest figures were reported by Chris Churchill in the Albany Times Union, he failed to offer earlier reports for comparison, a basic way to measure the precipitous drop in paid circulation over time. As unpleasant as it is for professional journalists to contemplate, the magnitude of that drop is the real story behind the new ABC numbers.

Fortunately, the Times Union archives offers a baseline of sorts for seeing the new numbers in their deeper context. In October 2006, Alan Wechsler reported on ABC’s circulation numbers for most of the region’s papers for the April-September 2006 period. Side by side, the pair of reports, spanning the severe recession over four and a half years, yields insights into the state of print journalism in the digital age.

As reported earlier in this series, The Post-Star of Glens Falls has seen a circulation drop of 26.5% (35,000 to 25,705) over a slightly wider time frame. While the Wechsler story from 2006 doesn’t report Post-Star figures, Lee Enterprise’s 2006 annual report states its average daily circulation for that period to be 33,271. This makes the circulation drop for the Post-Star over the past four and a half years 22.7%.

By comparison, the Times Union’s average daily circulation dropped 30% from 95,456 to 66,835.

Coincidentally, both The Post-Star and the Times Union doubled their newsstand price over this period. The TU increased its price from 50¢ to 75¢ at the end of 2008 and added another quarter a year later. The Post-Star moved from 50¢ to $1 in one jump last spring. Both newspapers’ price hikes happened at a time when the papers were growing discernibly thinner and transferring more and more content to the internet. Hardly opportune circumstances for large price increases.

The region’s second largest paper, the Daily Gazette of Schenectady showed a rare ray of hope for newspapers looking for ways to make money from their readers as they transition to digital platforms. In August 2009 the Gazette placed the majority of its content behind a pay wall online. The most recent ABC release, the first to include online subscriptions in its circulation figures, shows that average weekday paid circulation increased from 48,780 to 62,015, (with roughly 21,000* of the latter paid online subscriptions). For paid print readers alone, the Gazette saw a drop-off of 16%. With the digital subscriptions included, the paper saw a 27% gain in paid readers overall.

Note: The Gazette offers a discounted digital subscription rate for ongoing print subscribers. It is unclear from the ABC’s new methodology whether or not they count these supplementary subscriptions as independent subscriptions. Counting each supplementary subscription as an independent subscription would inflate the overall circulation figures.

The Record of Troy sustained the hardest hit of all the region’s dailies. Over the past four years the Record’s circulation dropped from 15,233 to 9,951, or 34.7%. Though the Wechsler story did not report the baseline figures for the Saratogian’s daily circulation, the 2007 annual report for the Journal Register Co. puts the October 2006 circulation at 10,629. With the latest ABC report showing a circulation of 7,220 the Saratogian has lost 32% of its readership.

The accelerated shift away from print readership of newspapers in our region and the consequent chaos within newsrooms is one of the under-reported stories in the wake of the financial and economic collapses of 2007-2008. When reported, the stories are usually on an incremental basis or abstracted to a national trend.

Newspaper editors and publishers are traditionally loathe to shine a light on themselves with the same precision or persistence they use on other institutions. Such shyness toward self-examination (and examination of their colleagues) becomes a genuine problem when their medium becomes an integral part of the story. At this critical juncture in the information age, the absence of honest self-assessment within the news media in general and newspapers specifically, comes at the expense of professional credibility and readers’ credulity. It is a lapse newspapers cannot afford.

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