Star Tribune circulation down 8 percent Sundays, 5 percent weekdays; Pioneer Press flat

The fall Audit Bureau of Circulations paid figures are out, and the Star Tribune is still bleeding.

For the six months ending Sept. 30, the Strib sold 477,562 Sunday papers, a drop of 8.3 percent from a year earlier. As recently as 2005, the Strib sold 636,000 Sunday papers.

On weekdays, sales totaled 304,543, a 5.5 percent annual decline.

Meanwhile, the Pioneer Press continued its trend of minuscule gains: up 0.1 percent on Sundays and weekdays, to 246,680 and 185,220 papers respectively. These days in the newspaper industry, even that skinny rise is way above average.

I’ll try to get comments from company officials later today, along with further details including web numbers.

A few notes, historical and otherwise:

Since 2005, the Pioneer Press has shown tiny but consistent growth — about as tiny as it comes, between 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent on both Sundays and weekdays.

The Strib, meanwhile, has taken it on the chin, with Sunday numbers dropping between 4.4 and 8.6 percent annually, and weekdays between 4.2 and 6 percent. In the past year, the company, which was in bankruptcy all but three days of the six-month reporting period, has deliberately cut home-delivery and distribution in non-metro Minnesota.

Circulation data have a lot of moving parts, and while drops are almost always bad news, not all declines are created equal.

The numbers include so-called “other-paid” circulation: papers vended on the cheap to third-party providers such as hotels, as well as through school programs and to employees.

Once upon the (recent) time, these numbers impressed advertisers and made a mass medium look a bit more mass than it really is. In ’05, other-paid made up 6.3 percent of the Strib’s Sunday sales and 9 percent of weekday sales.

But amid the Ad Depression, cost-cutting papers have cut way down on other-paid because it wasn’t really generating revenue. The Strib has been aggressive in this regard, cutting other-paid Sunday sales from 40,000 in ’05 to 2,100 this fall, and from 34,000 to 8,200 on weekdays. Other-paid now accounts for under 1 percent of Sunday sales and 3 percent of weekday sales.

While the PiPress top-line circ number has been rock-steady, other-party numbers have bounced around, peaking in 2007 at 15,385 (Sundays) and 20,936 (weekdays), or about 6 percent and 11 percent of sales, respectively. The newest figures are 11,531 on Sundays and 8,667 on weekdays, about 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

The top-line paid-circ numbers also include e-Editions, digital replicas of the print paper that cost nearly nothing to make or deliver, and can be sold or added as print spiffs at a (often quite substantial) discount. Those numbers, especially at the Pioneer Press, have soared. The St. Paul paper reported zero e-Edition subscriptions in 2007; now it has 9,700 on Sunday and 31,100 on weekdays.

Strib figures are 4,400 Sundays and 25,200 weekdays.

ABC reports circulation every six months. Generally speaking, circ directors say the numbers are better compared year-to-year, rather than semi-annually, because of seasonal effects.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by karl anderson on 10/26/2009 - 08:59 am.

    I would thought listening to everyone that no one read newspapers. 477,000 is a lot higher than I would have thought.

    For apples to apples, can you give us what is happening to radio and local television audience numbers? My suspicion in light of netfix, cable, IPODs, and CDs I would suspect they are down as well.

    Secondly, how is the total audience for Strib and and PP and vs last year?

    Clear evidence that media is splintering….

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/26/2009 - 09:35 am.

    It should be noted that the Strib did better than nearly all the other Top 25 papers.

    Fifteen of the Top 25 saw double-digit declines in daily circulation, many as high as 20-25%. By that measure, the Strib’s 5.5% decline looks pretty good.

    The Miami Herald, for example, looks to be heading into Rochester Post-Bulletin territory.

    E&P’s list of the top 25 here:

  3. Submitted by Tim McNeill on 10/26/2009 - 09:59 am.

    These numbers while interesting, don’t tell me where these subscribers are going. Are these people moving to on-line paid or free internet content? Or, are they just not reading papers at all anymore? I see fragmentation going on but, is this all due to the free content delivered by on-line web-sites or aggregators such as Google news. And, how come a local paper such as the Strib not make a case for package advertising deals that along side the web and the physical paper not be a viable business model? That last question has me wondering. Media companies long ago started buying up several radio, television and print properties in a market to create this kind of model. Are they struggling in this regard too? Jump in here and help me understand where the business model is and where it is going.

  4. Submitted by Joel Kramer on 10/26/2009 - 10:27 am.

    I don’t believe that declining circulation is necessarily bad news for a newspaper. In this era of sharply declining print advertising revenue, newspapers need readers to contribute to profitability. If a newspaper loses circulation because it is shedding distribution that is too expensive, increasing its price and/or reducing its discounting, this could make it financially healthier.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/26/2009 - 10:55 am.

    Tim – the newest report doesn’t include data on combined print + web penetration, but I reported on this issue back in May.

    The short version is the Strib’s market penetration is falling – basically, print losses aren’t being made up by online gains, at least within the Twin Cities.

    There are obviously gains nationally and worldwide from the web, but while those tend to produce big page views, it’s not so great in the revenue department.

    Joel – I agree with you. In the past, the PiPress claims their circ revenue is going up substantially, so they are not discounting to keep share.

    Don’t know about the Strib, but I’m hoping we can talk. The circ rev figures in bankruptcy indicated flat, not down.

  6. Submitted by karl anderson on 10/26/2009 - 01:47 pm.

    PP circ rep is going up?

    Didn’t you print a comment some time that they were giving their Sunday newspaper away at a $1 a year in south metro? That makes no sense.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/26/2009 - 03:13 pm.

    I believe I am one of many (thousands?) of people who buy the Pioneer Press Sunday edition only to get the full-week TV schedule. I read it and then read the StarTribune on line (both in part, not cover to cover).

    The StarTribune could probably get a lot of us back by re-instating that small but valuable item.

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