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Many Strib subscribers leaving — or paying less

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

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Steve Poulter on 11/09/2007 - 02:36 pm.

    Me included…

    I canceled my Strib subscription at the end of October (after 30+ years; see email to Editor Barnes below) and have since gotten several plaintive calls from the paper’s call center offering 2/3 off the regular price (for 12 months) for a full-week, weekday or Sunday-only subscription.

    Turned ’em down…. Now reading the NYT daily (was Sunday-only before) and loving it, despite the 4x comparative increase in cost.

    Curiously, about the only things we miss (and pick up from the web site) are the weather and Vikings commentary (and I’m no real sports fan). I woulda mentioned the TV magazine, too, but it apparently disappeared when the subscription was canceled — didn’t know one subscription was so meaningful.

    Here’s my email to Editor Barnes:

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Steve Poulter
    Sent: Friday, October 26, 2007 9:12 AM
    To: ‘’
    Subject: Our Subscription

    Dear Editor Barnes,

    I’ve been a devoted reader/subscriber since 1973 — some of it as a newsroom editor/writer (Star/Corporate: 1973-85 and StarTribune-Temp 1991-92). At one point in my post-journalist life I was dirt-poor and could barely afford groceries — but I kept the StarTribune subscription going as a personal “necessity.”

    But that’s changed. I’ve been pushed close to the edge several times since the Avista takeover, but now I’ve really reached my limit.

    The final straw was the Post-it-style note on the front page of my home-delivered copy of Wednesday’s paper (10/23/2007) promoting your new, enhanced zoned/local coverage. I resent the intrusion of the note itself on my reading. But, more importantly, your new “hyper-local” coverage strategy isn’t working for me: The topics I care about are being trivialized or ignored. At best, I find myself reading a few paragraphs of prominently displayed articles and then asking myself “why did this piece earn this display position?”

    I think the paper would be better off with different strategy — and I’ve been worrying about the “Future of the Newspaper” since the early ’80s (when it was my job).

    There was a time in the ’70s and earlier when the Cowles newspapers (Des Moines Register/Tribune and Minneapolis Star/Tribune) had huge (6-foot diameter) revolving world globes prominently displayed in their lobbies. I liked to walk by them on my way to the newsroom — they symbolized an enterprise committed to delivering news with a world-view in the middle of fly-over-land. They also seemed to symbolize that even a rural corn farmer/reader was a world citizen and that the “product” coming out of the building would/should reflect a non-parochial — but localized — view the world.

    When I worked at the Des Moines Register (1972-73), the institutional memory was stretched daily trying to connect news stories to readers. If there was an Iowan even slightly involved in a story out of, say, the Vietnam war, the Iowa connection was emphasized and there were quotes from the person if possible. In fact, it was an internal joke among the newsies that any significant story could be connected to at least one “former Iowan”. The reporting job wasn’t done until you’d found a connection — a newsroom version of “Six Degrees of Separation”.

    I also recall reviewing old Cowles papers from the post-war 1940s and reading a series by one of the Cowles brothers examining a trip he’d made through post-war Europe. The series was featured on the editorial page and examined the state of the world and how it could/would impact local folks and the local economy. My initial reaction was that the boss took a world tour and (ego-mania) decided he should get space in the paper to write about it, but today I see it differently: He was localizing and sharing an experience that most-everyone-else would not get.

    That’s hyper-local to me.

    Given what is the reality of the StarTribune today, we’ll be dropping our (daily/Sunday) subscription in the next few days while converting our Sunday-only NYT subscription to daily/Sunday.

    It’ll cost a bit more, but at least it will be a decent read….

    Steve Poulter

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/12/2007 - 11:21 am.

    Mr. Poulter, you are very kind and gentle in the throes of your Stribulation.

    The shrinking and hyper-localizing of the Strib is only the beginning. I also discovered that they have been printing partial and heavily edited versions of stories from other sources. Their Reader’s Digest version of the Washington Post four-parter about Cheney just about did us in. Legal to do, but presented as the whole magilla. Which, of course, calls into question everything that appears on Strib pages.

    The size and substance of the Strib has become so minimal that our carrier had trouble finding our front yard.

    And so, after 30+ years, we gave it up.

    NY Times online, PiPress for smudgy fingers.

    You go, MinnPost!!

  3. Submitted by Julie Legg on 11/12/2007 - 04:45 pm.

    My first subscription to the Star Trib coincided with a political science class I took in the early 90’s. Since then, I’ve never been without an ongoing subscription. But lately, my husband and I realize that we are not getting full coverage stories, plus we are being baited by the likes of columnists like Katherine Kersten. We’ve never considered the Pipress a serious contender.
    Add to that the fact that we must now purchase TV Guide and we are now reaching for the New York Times for news and the Strib for crime stats and obituaries. It won’t be long before those two items won’t justify even the discounted price.

  4. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 11/13/2007 - 10:49 am.

    I’m almost ready to go over the cliff and cancel my subscription, but the Strib is still the best local paper for my purposes and I don’t think I could face the day without a morning paper, so I’m still in the fold.

    Having said that, I’m beyond disgusted with the changes.

    Steve Poulter, a poster above, describes his experience in Iowa, where no story was complete without the local angle. I believe there is a joke in journalistic circles about so-called “local man dies in nuclear blast” stories. I used to make this crack about the Strib, too. Those were the good old days! Now, the nuclear blast wouldn’t even merit a mention in my “West Metro” edition unless it detonated in Chanhassen or Eden Prairie.

    Many, if not most, of these “intensely local” stories do not merit their column inches. A whole news story about the financial woes of a Dunn Bros. on Eden Prairie Road? Please! This stuff would have a hard time finding space in the Sun newspapers, let alone a “major metropolitan daily”.

    The departure of classical music critic Michael Anthony was another huge blow. As the only full-time classical music critic in the state, he had a depth of knowledge and experience that is irreplaceable. We are now left to the foibles and fancies of whatever free-lancers the paper chooses to use. Classical music, never given much space in the Strib, will undoubtedly get even shorter shrift.

    What almost did it for me, though, was the recent mean-spirited article entitled “Tour de Tacky.” After some preening about the Twin Cities’ supposed new status as the “center of cool” (self-awarded by Minnesota Monthly), this article described various eyesores around town (with pictures), including private homes. The piece helpfully identified the blocks where these blots on our coolness could be viewed, so the rest of us can drive by and laughingly point our hipster fingers. I couldn’t believe it. While public buildings are fair game for this kind of ridicule, I think a newspaper crosses a line when it mocks unsuspecting private citizens’ homes and provides their locations. I don’t know which upset me more—the sheer triviality of the article or the snarky “gee, we’re cool” attitude.

    The repeated editorials in the Sunday edition attempting to justify the paper’s new approach, with the mandatory “we want to hear from you” send-off, are a joke. Clearly, the owners of the paper and their advertisers have already decreed that henceforth they will cater to two groups: 1. the young and hip 2. the affluent suburbanite. Therefore, we get coverage of clubs and rock bands for the former and the “intensely local” and increasingly conservative editorial stance for the latter. It’s not going to work! The young and hip already have ample sources of information about nightlife in free publications like City Pages, The Rake, and a number of others. They’re not going to start subscribing to the Strib. It just won’t happen. I can’t speak for other suburbanites, but this one is unimpressed by the “intensely local” focus. I want national and international news and thoughtful analysis of same. Isn’t there a war going on in Iraq? Aren’t we electing a President next year?

    In spite of all the above, we’re still subscribers (my husband isn’t quite as upset as I am), but I am a most dissatisfied one. I am thrilled that MinnPost exists and delighted to be able to savor the writing of former Stribbers whom I sorely miss!

    Any chance of your getting Mike Anthony to write on classical music?

    Best regards and good luck! I know there are lots of us out here who very happy to see you.

  5. Submitted by David Burck on 12/10/2007 - 12:29 pm.

    After weeks of other distractions and local media noodling, I’ve finally checked out MinnPost. Yea! Real news by real writers who think and look before they spew forth. The Strib is (has become?)the worst of all things for a newspaper – irrelevant. Without going on a rant, adding to earlier commenters, I get far better and balanced writing from the Washington Post (or pick your favorite major city paper)AND far better local writing from the SW Journal. I love the physicality of printed newspapers, but can now only tolerate (barely) the weekend Strib.
    As for their website, it sucks, and can only think the ranking is from locals who have given up on subscribing, but want what they see as an easy route to local sports and breaking items. It really is a lame construction of some of the shortest written news copy imaginable, and of the least linked information I’ve seen of ANY large newssite. Half the time more copy inches are given, the editing is poor.
    My apologies for tacking on such a late comment – I am catching up to MinnPost posts. (I do think the tagline “A Thoughtful Approach…” is weak and deserves any parody it gets)

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