Monday, October 03, 2011

Moneyball: Lee Enterprises and the Post-Star by the numbers

Eleventh in a series by contributor Mark Wilson
(©2011 Mark Wilson)

With the end of September comes the end of another semi-annual survey of the number of newspaper readers conducted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The results of the latest audit will not be released until the first week in November.

While the ABC’s last audit showed the Glens Falls Post-Star in the middle of a haggard pack of regional newspapers when ranked by percentage of lost circulation, it might be useful to assess the recent performance of The Post-Star in context of the 53 daily newspapers owned by its parent company, Lee Enterprises, Inc. of Davenport, Iowa. After all, for as much as the Post-Star wants readers to see it as a paragon of small-town local journalism, it is ultimately just another property in a corporate portfolio—a corporation under the shadow of overwhelming debt, impending stock exchange delisting and possible bankruptcy.

Lee Enterprises operates 53 newspapers and their satellite publications in 23 states, with heavy concentration in the country’s northern midwest region. As of a year ago, the audited daily circulation of Lee’s properties ranged from 207,145 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) to 3,821 (Baraboo [Wisconsin] News Republic). With its circulation of 26,798, the Post-Star reached the 14th largest audience in the Lee stable. A year ago the paper accounted for 1.94% of Lee’s entire weekday paid circulation.

Over the five-year span bracketed by the 2006 and 2010 annual reports, while every Lee paper but one posted losses in circulation (combined, Lee papers lost 256,338 paying readers or 15.66%), the Post-Star lost readers (6,473—or 19.46%) at a pace well above the average. In percentage of circulation losses, the Post-Star ranked fifteenth worst of the 56 Lee papers that were extant in 2006.

Perhaps of greater concern to Lee management, the Post-Star appears to be shedding its print audience at an increasing rate compared to the rest of the field. Between 2008 and 2010 the Post Star ranked tenth worst in Lee circulation losses; between 2009 and 2010—a year after winning the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing—the Post-Star moved to fourth place among Lee’s biggest losers.

While no two newspapers are alike, and the regional forces influencing circulation figures vary from year to year, finding yourself routinely on the list of under-performers (and sinking) in a corporate portfolio is not good. Particularly when the corporation is under tremendous pressure from creditors to increase its liquidity.

All the grim statistics might yet point up an opportunity—both for the Post-Star and its sister newspaper the (even worse-performing) Auburn [NY] Citizen. Should the time come when Lee is forced to divest its geographical or financial outliers, perhaps a local (or at least regional) interest will step forward to buy the undervalued properties. Should that happen the Post-Star will be able to stake a valid claim (for the first time in four decades) of being a genuinely local newspaper.


Brian said...

One on the links was to a column by Managing Editor Ken Tingley.

"It's always disconcerting when small newspapers like The Post-Star are lumped into the conversation about tabloid journalism in England and Casey Anthony TV coverage.
I regularly field complaints about how newspapers "sensationalize the news" ( with a page B7 brief?) or are just tyring to "sell" newspapers... The vast majority of journalism being done these days is in small towns where reporters go to board of education meetings, town board meetings and cover county fairs."

Nice try by Mr. Tingley but the Casey Anthony nonsense was on the FRONT PAGE of his paper for MULTIPLE DAYS IN A ROW after the verdict was announced.

He speaks of the work done by his reporters on unglamorous public meetings. They are more relevant to readers but are far more likely to be relegated to B7 than the irrelevant national tabloid hysteria du jour that often pollutes the front page.

Mark Wilson said...

A table of the circulation numbers from Lee newspapers since 2006 can be found here.