Earlier this week, the news broke that Star Tribune circulation had sunk again — 6.5 percent Monday-Friday, and 4.3 percent Sunday from a year earlier. This prompted no small amount of schadenfreude on local sites and perhaps within certain quarters of Minnpost.com.
The Strib’s plunge more than doubled its Top 25 newspapering peers, which was bad enough, but for good measure, its East Metro competitor, the PiPress, was one of the few papers reporting a gain. (Infinitesimal, but still.)
But the news for the Strib is even worse than it appears.
Circ stories tend to cluster around May Day and Halloween, when the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) releases its six-month audits. Media reports focus on top-line numbers — daily and Sunday circulation. But those are notoriously malleable figures — you can discount your product up to 75 percent and goose your number, ship several thousand “third party” copies to schools, nursing homes, hotels and college campuses; you can even count the rags your own employees receive.
Thus the “core” number that most readers (and increasingly, advertisers) think of as circulation — subscriptions and single-copy sales — gets buried amid the fluff. And here’s where things darken over 425 Portland.
No time to read
In a detailed ABC breakdown released this summer, the Strib’s year-over-year top-line decline was similar to the most recent report — 4.9 percent Monday-Friday, 5.3 percent Sunday. Bad enough. But if you look at subscribers who pay more than half the basic rate — the biggest and most lucrative reader category — the number plunges 8.6 percent Monday-Friday and a stunning 11.6 percent on Sundays. Put another way, one in every nine Sunday loyalists disappeared between March 2006 and April 2007.
The report shows the Strib staunched the bleeding the old-fashioned way: they discounted. The number of subscribers getting 50 percent to 75 percent off quadrupled. However, that only replaced a third of the departing weekday loyalists and half of Sunday’s disappeared.
Those of us in the media chattering classes believe the Strib’s post-redesign fluffiness has fueled the exodus. Cindy Doege, the Strib’s pleasant-to-talk-to executive circulation director, terms complaints about recent editorial changes “de minimus — not even measurable” as a reason people give when they drop the paper. “The reason that leads the pack is no time,” she says.
For some prospective dropees, lowering the price lowers the stakes and keeps them in the fold. You’ll put up with the continued recycling or diminishments or any other gripes if you don’t pay as much. She says circulation industry chatter is that advertisers value any kind of paying relationship with readers — they don’t much care if you pay full price or one-quarter price — therefore the Strib is more willing to discount than in the past. (This is not, of course, an invitation to call the paper and wrangle a better deal!) Circulation has always paled as a revenue source to advertising, but in a weird way, it’s a print move toward a Web paradigm of ad revenue uber alles.
Speaking of the Web, the Strib fights far above its weight in this category. For the first time, ABC listed “unique visitors” to newspaper sites. The Strib — now the nation’s 17th biggest paper by print circulation — finished sixth among newspaper websites, though three papers (USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post) did not list figures. According to the just-released report, the Strib’s 4.9 million unique visitors barely trailed the L.A. Times’ 5.3 million over the past six months ending Sept. 30, and trounced the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News.
Back to print: On the heels of the Strib’s ballyhooed zoned editions, Doege flatly predicts subscriptions will rise in subsequent reports, even if the top-line number falls. (The Strib does seem to be paring down the squishiest third-party newsprint dumps.) File that claim away for a spring update.