Monday, April 18, 2005

Sensitivity Grows On L.A. Times Circulation

*(I draw your attention to a most thought-provoking second comment on this blog, from "Transit Nerd," but obviously someone who knows something. See below).

A statement by Tribune Co. chairman Dennis FitzSimmons on Los Angeles Times circulation is stirring new concern, although the concern might be misplaced.

FitzSimmons told Editor and Publisher that a new figure out next month would show Times circulation down 5.5%.

But it was not clear whether this was a reference to a 5.6% decline, down to 902,000 daily, that was actually first reported last September.

Another 5.5% decline would really be bad news. Let's hope FitzSimmons was referring to the last figure and not actually the next one.

Under the Tribune, circulation losses at the Times have been more pronounced than any other large paper in the country. Some of it is blamed on the 'Do Not Call' lists that cut Times telemarketing to a shadow of what it had been in the past. Some of it is a conscious, and I think badly mistaken decision, to save money by pulling out of outlying areas and cut back the National Edition, which was never efficiently distributed. Some can be attributed to circulation declines affecting many newspapers as the Internet spreads and becomes more important. Some also is due to charging 50 cents for the daily paper on the newsstands instead of 25 cents. And some has to do with conservative antipathy to the liberal views of the paper. Thousands of conservatives have cancelled their subscriptions.

It should be noted that even the New York Times, which has built up a huge national edition, has had trouble building circulation, in very small increments. The NYT has been losing circulation in the New York area.

It could be that marketing through the Internet, charging something to read the paper online, might, in time, reverse the LAT circulation declines. This would especially be true, if the other major newspapers began also charging for reading online.

When Mark Willes became CEO of Times-Mirror, and the Times' problems really began, he had the expressed goal of doubling Times circulation to two million.

Later, he found out, as he once acknowledged to me, that simply keeping circulation up to the existing level was a struggle. Many people, he remarked ruefully, cancelled their subscriptions when they went on vacation, and then never resumed them. Some of the strategems Willes adopted to boost circulation, such as the deal with La Opinion, later came to be questioned as falsifying actual circulation.

One thing we do not know is whether the present editors of the Times, John Carroll and Dean Baquet, have remonstrated with the Tribune to put more effort into maintaining circulation.

The time has come now, though, to pay attention to this and spend the effort and money to rebuild circulation. Otherwise, the paper's future is not assured.


Blogger Dennis Mosher said...

When considering paying for access to a newspaper web site, a consumer may well ask, "What about all those #@%& pop-ups, banners and such?"

On the other hand, if the online advertisers see a 70 to 80% decline in impressions resulting from a switch to a subscription model, they may decide to take their dollars elsewhere.

Will subscription fees offset a loss in ad revenue? Tough call.

In fairness, newspapers have been touting their web sites for the last ten years as the big new thing (and great new advertising medium). Newspapers have yet to figure out how to make a lot of money on their web sites. Retailers still get their best results from dead tree advertising.

The best chance for a successful transition to subscription access could be to bundle the major papers together -- similar to the way cable TV channels are bundled.

Logically, someone who reads the LA Times might go for a package that included the top ten US newspapers.

4/19/2005 8:09 AM  
Blogger Transit Nerd said...

Ken: I often wonder what your background and knowlege base about circulation and advertisng is built upon. Just because the paper keeps the church and state separation between editorial and business functions doesn't mean that you can't learn more because you retired from the news side of the business.

Advertisers like to buy based upon home delivered, not street sales numbers. And where those home deliveries target are what counts. It is really advertiser driven.

To get papers out to rural areas and outlying counties and key influence areas such as Sacramento and Washington, and other non-core cites can and does cost upwards of $1.00 per copy. Advertisers don't see a return, so they don't want to pay. And it is money down a rathole for newspaper profits.

If the paper sheds costly out of area vanity circulation and the related overhead, it reduces distribution costs. But, it doesn't necessarily decrease ad revenue.

Personally, it is great not having the telemarketing folks call on my three lines one after another. Now, I get direct mail asking for my subscription. And I know if there is some type of special that undercuts my $2.50 / week delivered price.

Despite opinions otherwise, news content exists to fill the otherwise white space between ads. And if people have a habit and time to read, they subscribe. But, these days, you can get content electronicially and with those choices and time constraints, less people are subscribing. This is a nationwide change.

Now, dealing with advertisers, there is another profound change. For decades, the paper was chock full of ROP ads for Broadway, May Co., Bullocks, Robinsons and other department stores. Now look at a Monday-Wednesday paper. Rare to see even a survivor department store ad.

How about the mighty classified section? It wasn't uncommon to find tonnage of 80-120 pages with massive employment listings in the 70's, 80's and 90's. The HR world has changed dramatically.

And the sports section. It used to be filled with electronic retailers hawking the latest in computers and related hardware. Now there are hardly any ads in Sports.

I should mention that one thing Capt. Crunch found out was that charging less for the paper didn't boost street sales. And bundling with La Opinion didn't help either. Most street sales is by habit and convenience. People will pay for something they want.

Even the upstart Hoy has learned that folks didn't want to pay two bits and people that get La Opinion get it out of habit. They don't switch because one is free.

The Times and other major papers require you to register to see the paper online. And you have to be a subscriber to see Calendar. Have you seen all the opportunties and offers you can be flooded with when you register on a newspaper website?

Internet papers are filled with pop-up ads and other techniques to reach the viewer. And many saavy internet users use Mozilla to kill those pop-ups.

The weekly sections such as Health and Outdoors attract some readers, but other sections such as Food are deadwood from a revenue standpoint and extremely costly to the bottom line. Remember when the Food Section used to run 48 pages?

Ken: I just don't think you really understand the nunances of circulation or advertising.

Its sad that some conservatives quit their subscriptions, but does that mean the paper gains liberal readers? It doesn't. It means that people are spending otherways to get information and maybe they don't want what is published in the Times, the Daily News or the SGV Tribune.

The future of these papers is assured if they have a good core home delivered readship with the right demographics that advertisers want reach and these readers buy products advertisers want to sell you.


4/19/2005 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A large number of Jewish subscribers have cancelled over the unfair and biased reporting allowed by Editor John Carroll.

It has been called to his attention countless times that the reference to Palestinian Suicide murderers as "Militants" or "Freedom Fighters" when they blow themselves up killing scores of innocent non-combatant Israelis, is dishonest and offensive to the Los Angeles Jewish Community.

When others do this, in other countries, they are properly identified, but for some reason, Carroll allows the "Moral Equivalency" doctrine to flourish at the Times.

Is he Anti-Semetic? Who knows, but he clearly has set his feet in cement in this issue.

A fish stinks from the head first; get rid of Carroll and review all policy at the Times, if you want to fix it.

Until then, it is going to continue to suffer circulation losses, as well it should.

4/20/2005 4:38 AM  
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