Newsosaur Alan Mutter calls the double-digit drop in the latest newspaper circulation figures "devastating." Content Bridges' Ken Doctor's adjective of choice is "breathtaking." Poynter's Rick Edmonds goes with "extraordinary."
Meanwhile, at the San Francisco Chronicle, whose 25.8 percent daily circulation drop over the past year was more than double the rest of the industry's and the steepest of all major papers, publisher Frank Vega says things are going according to plan.
Vega can spin all he wants—something about the remaining circulation being more profitable—but the analysts are correct: these are off-the-cliff numbers, an accelerating industry-wide decline that is more than double the previous year's rate of reader loss. (Hey, maybe the Onion was right.)
In the long run, Vega's rose-colored glasses to the contrary, it won't be just readers leaving: It will be advertisers, as well, deserting or paying less because the papers are reaching smaller and smaller audiences. More-profitable circulation won't make up for that.
The reasons behind these declines—10.6 percent overall among the biggest daily papers, 7.5 percent on Sundays, in the March-September period—are manifold, of course: the economy, readers defecting to the Internet, increasing irrelevance, etc.
Probably hardest to measure, but certainly a factor in the decline, is the increasingly dismal quality of many big papers as the result of slashing staff cuts over the past couple of years (and don't expect those cuts to be over, especially with ongoing declines like these circulation figures). Many American dailies, not very good to begin with, are turning into virtual shoppers; even the best papers are noticeably reduced versions of their former selves, as coverage has been pruned and sections shrunken or dropped. Readers clearly are noticing.
Memo to Frank Vega: Readers are voting with their feet. Those are actual customers you're losing, one-quarter of them in the past year, more than 87,000 readers. Know any businesses that can lose that big a chunk of the customer base and have a bright future? Not likely.
But Vega spins away. According to the Chronicle's account of his rationale, the paper's big circulation decline was "an expected result of moving away from a business model that depends mainly on advertising and instead relies on readers for a greater share of revenue." Well, if you're relying more on readers for revenue, don't you want more of them, rather than less? By this logic, a 50 percent drop in circulation would have been fantastic! Let's shoot for that next year, OK?
And this is hardly the first time the Chronicle has tried to spin enormous circulation declines. Four years and a quarter-million lost readers ago, the excuse for a whopping 16.4 percent decline was that the paper had deliberately cut unprofitable outlying circulation. "We cut a lot of what you would call unprofitable circulation around the first of the year,'' Vega said then. "We made a decision that we want quality, profitable circulation that better serves our advertisers." Uh-huh. How's that working out?
This is exactly the sort of whistling past the graveyard and abject denial that has helped get newspaper executives into the trouble they're into today, with plunging circulation, declining advertising and moribund efforts to shift intelligently and aggressively into new media. I heard another version of it a couple years ago from an editor at a big paper who airily suggested that circulation would merely sink to its "natural level" and then flatten out. But what if that natural level is zero? Given the latest circulation-decline figures, you have to wonder. And you have to wonder about the business acumen of a publisher who would spin such bad news so ridiculously.
PS: Want to see a scary chart of newspaper circulation over the past 20 years? Check this out.