Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Inadequate Tribune Report on Circulation

In its Third Quarter report to stockholders, the Tribune Co. gives a truncated explanation of circulation declines at its various newspapers without listing just what the new circulation figures are, nor making any commitment to expending enough time and money to reverse the trend.

The report declares:

"Internal audits at our major newspapers are largely complete and we have detected no evidence of circulation misstatements like those at Newsday. While these results are preliminary until verified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, they confirm our belief that the unethjcal actions in New York were isolated incidents.

"Nevertheless, as outlined in our second quarter report, we've significantly tightened our circulation procedures across the publishing group. In the third quarter we took additional steps. We standardized circulation policies at all newspapers, increased the role and responsibility of our finance department in circulation activities, and further tightened controls over third-party sponsored home delivery programs.

"Our tighter policies were partly responsible for the declines in circulation reported by the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times for the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2004. We are being conservative in our reporting. In Los Angeles, for example, we cut back on less profitable circulation such as third-party sponsored home delivery and single copy bulk sales. This reduces total circulation but improves the quality of our audience, which is very important to advertisers.

"As we anticipated, the nationwide implementation of Do Not Call (DNC) legislation has affected the telesales operations of our newspapers--another factor in circulation declines. To offset DNC, we've invested heavily in database marketing systems to improve our ability to grow readership and target high-quality circulation through direct mail and other methods."

This is the latest of various excuses given by management for the precipitate decline in circulation at The Los Angeles Times, now exceeding 200,000 daily since the Tribune bought the paper. Going unmentioned are the thousands of subscribers who have stopped taking the paper because they are offended by the leftward drift of its editorial pages.

To be fair, even Mark Willes--who had once announced an unrealistic goal of 2 million daily circulation for The Times--acknowledged during his tenure that it was proving to be a struggle just to keep Times circulation fairly even. He said he had been shocked, for example, to find out how many readers cancelled their papers when they went on vacation and then didn't renew when they got back.

But as soon as the Tribune took over, there was evidence that the new company was more than ready to see circulation decline.
The key moment, in my view, came when daily circulation was allowed to slip below a million. This was a psychologically important moment, and publisher John Puerner's reaction was not reassuring. He launched no effort to speak of to reverse the decline, and since then Times daily circulation has continued to slip, the latest figure being 902,000.

Falling circulation and falling advertising will surely be accompanied by further cutbacks in The Times, such as the closing of the National Edition and the cutting back of sports which has already occurred.
The statements about higher quality circulation are the same kind of excuse given by Life magazine just before it ceased regular circulation years ago. (It has since been revived in much shortened form).

The Times is not going to go out of business, but unless more vigorous owners take over, I fear the circulation decline will only continue, and the quality of the paper will inevitably slip.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Matt Weinstock said...

Re: Circulation

After having been a subscriber since 1956, I terminated the TIMES a couple of years ago and don't miss it. Here are my complaints (I cannot speak for others):

It's too wordy and opinionated in the news department.
I expect a news story to tell what, when, where, and why, with the most important items at the top (so an editor can take his scissors and shorten as needed). I don't want to waste half a day trying to extract the news from some reporter's (?) essay on what's wrong with the world, especially when they omit important facts.

TIMES editors have told me their journalists are such good writers that I should like what they put out. I don't think so. Do they have any actual editors that edit?

They tailor the news to suit their liberal outlook on everything. They omit stories that don't reinforce their political beliefs.

Print newspapers are an endangered specie and unless there are major changes, we can watch them disappear into the La Brea Tar Pits.

12/08/2004 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, your paragraphs are visually hard to read. Can you please put a space inbetween them? Or, if that's not possible, please use paragraph indents!

12/08/2004 6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to the needs shortening comment. One of my editors once said "you don't need to put everything in your notebook in the story." Apparently LAT writers didn't get that memo.

Unfortunately the real underlying problem for all newspapers is that for decades readership has been getting older, dying and is not being replaced by younger readers who now get their news from TV and the Internet. Newspapers need to make dramatic changes in content and design to attract younger readers, but its not happening.

12/08/2004 9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The newspaper biz is under pressure from all angles. People are relying on free content on the Internet and therefore less willing to spend money on a subscription, the boob-tube mindset (certainly because of cable) is stronger than ever before, more residents aren't familiar with English than in the past (their native tongue is Spanish, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, etc), Angelenos have more distractions than ever before, such as the emergence of gyms and other lifestyle pursuits, and more people today are emotionally and physically detached from a paper based far, far away, way over there in (as they see things) grungy, crime-ridden LA. Add it all up and the Times will be lucky if its circulation doesn't drop below 800,000 in the next few years.

12/08/2004 9:42 PM  
Blogger Edward D. Padgett said...

Mr. Reich,

I'm a third generation employee at the Los Angeles Times, and work at the Olympic Facility as a press operator. Have been employeed by the newspaper for thirty-two years, and have experienced many changes, especially since the Tribune has taken over.

As I walked into the pressroom on Tuesday there were copies of a story about your blog from the Daily News throughout the pressroom. Appears the employees are thirsty for information from a source other than management.

I will be adding a link from my home page to your blog for my fellow workers. Not certain of managements reaction to your words, but will find out very soon?
http://home.earthlink.net/~dpadgett/

I have enjoyed reading your opinions, and hope you will not be deterred by the anonymous comments.

Why did you wait till after retirement to start your blog?

Thank you,
Ed

12/08/2004 10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't take a genius to explain why The Times is dripping in its own blood. Upper management is out of touch with the experts have their hands on the product daily, hourly. This is why you watch the Hanks movie "Big"--to avoid thinking small.

Top-down styles are going out; Googles and eBays are moving in. If you see the newspaper as a consumer product--which at 25 cents it is about as cheap and disposable as Charmin (The Other Guys)--you can step back and weigh its worth. Perception, Editor: we are mighty, we are the agenda for what's important and who's important. Perception, Audience: who do you think you're talking down to? why is my sports section 1/3 the size? what's with the oversized outdoors & home--have they not learned bigger isn't better?

This is no more a problem that a good earthquake can't take care of. I'm annoyed at the pinstripe perfection mantra of management when it's transparently nothing more than a pompous perception on the part of staff here. Leaders are out of touch, but when in LA has that ever stopped the show from going on--so cliche...for an industry that tries to avoid the same.

12/13/2004 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth - the value of Tribune Co. equity ($13.45 billion) is nearly equal to the total of The New York Times ($5.77 billion) and The Washington Post ($9.34 billion) combined.

12/14/2004 6:34 PM  

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