OLD Media Moves

Why the fascination with newspaper circulation data?

December 4, 2005

I spent part of my weekend examing a week’s worth of business sections for about eight newspapers from across the country. They were the newspapers in San Jose, Cleveland, San Francisco, Laredo, Waterbury, Conn., and a couple of others. OK, go ahead and call me a geek for reading business sections on the weekend, but I do have a point.

One of the things that I was struck by was the vast amount of newshole that these newspapers gave to the latest circulation numbers from the newspaper industry, which showed that circulation was down 2.6 percent. Many of these newspapers ran the story on the front page of the section, while others ran it inside.

My question is this: Do business section readers care? Yes, maybe the publisher of the paper we write for cares, and maybe our editors, but honestly, how many other readers in the circulation areas of these papers really gives a flying you-know-what about paid circulation data from the Audit Bureau of Circulation? I doubt it’s many, though I have no statistical data to back this up.

My UNC colleague, Phil Meyer, whose recent book The Vanishing Newspaper argues that declining newspaper circulation means the death of the newspaper business in less than 50 years, may disagree with me, but I doubt that this is a story that many newspaper readers care about. And that’s my point. If we want to reverse the decline of newspaper readers, we need to start doing a better job of story selection. Some of the stories we cover and write in the business news field we do simply to have a record. But other than the advertisers for the newspaper, who cares what the latest circulation figures are?

Many newspapers likely feel as if they need to run such stories to show their “objectivity” in reporting about the problems of their own industry as well as the other industries in their town or city. But I’d argue that our business news readers deserve something else from us.

I’d also make the argument that despite the declining circulation figures, things aren’t so bad for the country’s newspapers. Add paying subscribers to an actual printed newspaper to the number of people who are viewing that newspaper’s Web site, and you actually have MORE people reading the newspaper’s product than ever before, according to some studies that I have seen.

Memo to business editors across the country: The next time you see the quarterly newspaper circulation story run across the wire, think hard about whether this is a story your readers really want.

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