How I learned to stop worrying and love bad newspaper news

October 27, 2009

We had a hard time finding the good news in Monday’s report that U.S. newspaper circulation has fallen more than 10 percent, based on an analysis of 379 daily papers. Thank goodness for the newspapers whose publishers helped them understand why losing hundreds or thousands of paying readers is good.

Most papers acknowledged deep declines in circulation, but explained it in one of the following ways:

  • We had to clear out all the bulk copies sold at discount. (I’m still not sure how this one works because I recall publishers saying this a couple of years ago. How many deadwood readers are there?)
  • We shrank our coverage area so of course we lost some circulation. It tells advertisers that they’re getting a BETTER quality of reader.
  • We’re charging more for the paper so circulation revenue has risen, and anyway, who wants to rely on a business as fickle as advertising (the one that lined our owners’ pockets for the past 150 years.)?
  • Readership is rising on the Internet.
  • At least we didn’t get whacked as bad as the next guy.

All these statements are true, and they all are good business moves. What I can’t find among the numbers is what percent of print decline at many of these papers is because of the other reasons that you hear from people. Some are legitimate, some aren’t and some are just silly. All say one thing: Many people don’t pay for the paper anymore, which means there’s less money to keep them in business. (Don’t believe us? Ask the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer):

  • I hate my newspaper
  • My newspaper doesn’t have anything interesting in it
  • News is boring
  • News is free on the Internet
  • My newspaper is biased to the right/left/middle/other Little League team than the one my kid is on
  • My paper stopped running Garfield in the funnies. It doesn’t run Hints From Heloise anymore.
  • You can’t get good TV listings anymore
  • I don’t care about anything that happens in the rest of the world or outside my front door.
  • There’s not enough local/regional/national/world news here.
  • The sports section sucks.
  • It always arrives too early/late for me to read it.

Here are samples of how some papers handled Monday’s news:

San Francisco Chronicle headline: Chronicle’s strategy shift starts to pay off

The Chronicle said Monday that reshaping the newspaper’s business model is paying off financially even though, as anticipated, it has resulted in a sharp decline in circulation. For the six months that ended in September, The Chronicle’s daily circulation dropped 25.8 percent to 251,782, compared with the same period in 2008, the steepest decline among major U.S. metropolitan papers. …

Frank Vega, publisher of The Chronicle, said the newspaper’s loss in circulation 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.

The Chron also adds that subscription price increases and other changes have given it some profitable weeks after losing $50 million last year.

The Detroit News: Detroit newspapers lose less circulation than other big dailies

The steeper losses at other newspapers boosted the Detroit publications’ rankings among the largest in the country. The News pulled ahead from 50th place to 46th; the Free Press jumped from 20th to 17th.

“We radically changed our delivery model and throughout the industry we have seen greater losses,” Janet Hasson, senior vice president of audience development for the Detroit Media Partnership, said in a statement.
The Des Moines Register: Newspaper circulation falls, including at Register

Register Publisher Laura Hollingsworth said much of the decline is due to strategic changes, such as eliminating discounts, reducing unprofitable delivery in far corners of the state and increasing home delivery and single copy prices.

“Our unduplicated audience reach in central Iowa is higher today than it was a decade ago,” Hollingsworth said.

As you can see, things are doing well, so please stop telling everyone that they’re not.

(Photo: Reuters)


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[…] EXCUSES: Newspapers explain the bad news. Where’s the real news? [Reuters […]

Posted by Tuesday Evening Edition 10/27/09 « Coney Media | Report as abusive

While the article provides a few interesting facts,
I don’t see how it addresses the title:
“How I learned to stop worrying and love bad newspaper news”.
Robert, How *did* you learn to learn to stop worrying
and love bad newspaper news?..


Posted by neal nolans | Report as abusive

Neal, You are correct. I should have been clearer about who “I” is in my headline. I meant to cast “I” as the collective “I” among the headline writers and editors who determined that they would cast this news as positive.
As for me, I love bad newspaper news from the standpoint that it keeps me employed as I write these stories. On a human level and as a journalist facing a smaller job pool, I’m quite unhappy.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

I blame too much recursion: this article is a case in point – news about news about news.

Posted by Pointer | Report as abusive

With the large amount of “explanation” placed on this story about themselves, it make me wonder even more about how newspapers are reporting other stories.

Maybe it’s their unique and limited perspective about a subject that is causing a decline in newspaper circulation.

Posted by Scott Hess | Report as abusive


1. Thanks for contributing to the recursion, but I disagree.
2. They pay me in the news business to cover the news business.
3. There are people inside and outside journalism who say that news outlets shouldn’t cover themselves and shouldn’t cover the news business. They say that it bores the reader and that it is essentially writing for a small group whose emotional and professional inbreeding are well known.
4. I disagree with that. Covering the news business now, as everything about it changes and threats to its survival mount, is an exciting story to tell people. I also believe that you can promote transparency and trust in news organizations by telling the public in an easy-to-understand way how the business works. You don’t have to go to the grain-by-grain level of Editor & Publisher; you should write, as I constantly say, stories that Mom can understand, whether she’s a high school dropout or a PhD. This is necessary now more than ever as more people harbor paranoid, fearful mistrust of the news.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive