Monday, May 07, 2007

Circulation figures don't tell whole story

Circulation figures don't tell whole story
Earl Maucker

Back in the 1960s when I was a paperboy for the Alton Telegraph, I used to groan each time I received a new subscription order. One more paper to deliver, I thought, more weight in the bag, more time on the route -- less time for play.

Ah, for the good old days of circulation growth.

Fast forward to 2007 and once again we're reminded in stories this week that circulation of newspapers across the U.S. is in decline.

Pretty dismal stuff, it would seem.

But wait. Let's take a deeper look at the facts before we start writing off the future of newspapers.

Yes, circulation figures are dropping in most regions of the United States. That's hardly surprising in today's environment, with so much media fragmentation, so many ways to get news and information.

In reality, some of the circulation declines are deliberate, as publishers seek value from papers they do distribute.

More and more newspaper companies are limiting or eliminating entirely the newspapers they give away for free or at a major discount because, generally, those newspapers are not well read.

But beyond the number of newspapers in the market, experts and analysts in the business say newspaper advertisers care more about readership, which measures whether people are actually reading the paper instead of tossing it into the recycle bin without so much as a glance.

Our focus here at the Sun-Sentinel has been on home delivery or single copy sales, areas where we believe there is substantial value.

The agency that monitors circulation of newspapers is the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which, in my opinion, is still back in the 1960s in the way they count and report numbers.

Sure, they break it down even to the zip code level. They calculate circulation in the primary region and secondary regions of the newspaper's market, individually paid subscriptions, bulk sales, third-party sales and a host of other metrics including total readers of the daily newspaper.

But what they don't report is the total audience a media company like the Sun-Sentinel reaches through its various publications and electronic channels.

Even with fewer copies on the street, our readership is up from what it was two years ago.

The published audits do not take into account the impact of the Internet or subsidiary publications.

We, like most major newspaper companies, are major players in this relatively new, still-evolving medium.

For us, it's

Which, by the way, has grown in audience traffic every year it's been in operation.

"We're seeing good audience growth online. So far this year, our page views -- one way we measure our audience -- are up more than 12 percent over the same time in 2006," said Kathy Skipper, vice president & general manager for Sun-Sentinel Interactive. "We believe several things are contributing to this growth -- regular news updates, more video and more databases that are focused on helping consumers.

Combined with millions of page views per month on our Internet site and the distribution of our main newspaper, plus niche products like the Jewish Journal, City & Shore magazine, City Link, Teen Link and other products, our total audience reach has grown tremendously over the past few years.

"We recognize that in order to reach our audience effectively we must serve our customers on multiple platforms," said our General Manager Howard Greenberg. "Through Forum Publishing we have the largest family of weekly community publications in South Florida as well as the largest Spanish language audience in the Broward-Palm Beach market through el Sentinel, our Spanish language weekly."

No one is denying that newspapers are dealing with enormous challenges in today's world of fragmented media and the influence of the Internet.

But newspapers and the journalists that work on them have a healthy future ahead, as we transform our business to the new world of multiple media.

The good news is that the appetite for news has never been more robust.

We intend to serve our customers the way they like it.

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