The circulation puzzle: How low can a local publisher go?

On Saturday, the Strib’s David Phelps checked in with a really smart piece about Dolan Media Co., which locally publishes Finance & Commerce, Minnesota Lawyer, the St. Paul Legal Ledger and the recently acquired Politics in Minnesota.

Last month, I wrote that Dolan is “not a pure journalism play — for example, law firms pay the company to service mortgage-default case files” but Phelps delivered the details that “more than half of the company’s revenue is foreclosure-related,” explaining how the stock market hammered Dolan for not boosting such profits enough!

But that’s not the point of this post. I’ve been meaning to pass along some astounding circulation numbers about Dolan’s local journalism side, and Phelps gave me the nudge. These are print-only figures, and came out in SEC filings almost a year ago as Dolan prepared to go public:

Finance & Commerce: 750 daily paid (at $100 a year).
St. Paul Legal Ledger: 364 biweekly paid (at $130 a year).
Minnesota Lawyer: 1,933 weekly paid (at $225 a year).

Talk about niche publishing! For comparison, the weekly Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal tops 12,000 paid. Another comparison: F&C’s website had 6,835 unique visitors in March 2007; the Business Journal averaged 137,000 monthly uniques for its local coverage this winter.

[Update: F&C’s web numbers have doubled in a year to 13,105 uniques. Also, the title’s weekly construction and real estate issues would roughly double the print circulation.]

Dolan staffers have told me they want more attention for their local journalism, which fights above its weight scoop-wise. Since February, lead F&C stories are free for seven days on the paper’s site. (The Legal Ledger appears to be completely behind the paywall.) Still, the circ figures show how far the titles have to go to truly influence local news readers.

As everyone knows, the mass media are sucking wind, so broad reach isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dolan pubs have a profit lodestone that the rest of the journalism world envies: public notices — government-mandated ads that spokesman Haug Scharnowski says provide the “highest-margin revenue.” The company won’t give its private and foreclosure notices away, even as it tries to squeeze some web bucks from its non-lucrative journalism.

(Why have any journalism at all? Minnesota Statute 331A.02 mandates that, too. If you want public notice cash and publish more than once a week — as F&C and the Legal Ledger do — 25 percent of a paper’s news columns must be “devoted to news of local interest to the community which it purports to serve.”)

I’ve always thought it was oxymoronic that anyone’s “public” notice could be placed in a pricey, obscure private paper. (And yes, it has to be a newspaper, the same state statute demands.) However, I’ve been to enough Minnesota Newspaper Association conventions to know that, outside the Twin Cities, these ads are the lifeblood of small-town newspapers, so good luck changing that dynamic.

Besides, how often do you read the ads when you see them? Scharnowski argues the audience is limited, and traditionally, the smaller the printing costs, the lower the ad price. So this is one case where keeping your circulation tight keeps your wallet fat, even if it keeps your journalism off the radar.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 04/09/2008 - 12:52 am.

    The title mentioned above with a paid circulation of 12,000, Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal (bizjournals.com), is part of American City Business Journals. Their parent is Advance Publications, the parent of Condé Nast (publishers of Wired, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and too many more to list here). Maybe everyone knows this. I just happened on it yesterday.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/05/2010 - 10:51 am.

    Finance & Commerce is a nice publication I have worked with often. In fact, we were just cited in an April 1 article on air quality in ice arenas.

    At least some of there stuff gets noticed — one of my biggest hits was a national AP wire story that started in Finance & Commerce.

    BTW, here’s a link to that 4/1/2010 article:

    http://www.finance-commerce.com/article.cfm/2010/04/02/Bill-to-toughen-CO-standards-in-ice-arenas

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