As industry observers such as Alan Mutter and Mark Potts try to sort out the meaning of the latest newspaper circulation numbers, and what they mean in context of the past 10-15 years, I thought it would be instructive to look at the numbers from ABC for one market, my local market newspaper, The Baltimore Sun.
The Sun is typical of a mid-metro market newspaper in that even with the recent news, it remains the dominant media source for news, information and advertising in its market, but it has seen its position slip greatly over the years. When that slippage is reported in 6-month increments of a certain percentage, year-over-year, it’s hard to understand exactly how bad the story is. But, over time, the numbers are bracing.
The oldest reports currently available from ABC are from 1996, so that will be the base year.
In 1996, the Baltimore DMA had 906,100 occupied households. In the September, 1996 Audit Report, The Sun reports an average of 320,986 daily papers and 483,971 Sunday papers. In pure penetration numbers, that represents 35% for the daily and 58% for the Sunday. For every household in the Baltimore DMA, slightly more than one in three was touched by a daily Sun and a bit more than half of the households took a Sunday Sun.
Fast-forward to this week. Using population figures from the March 2008 Publisher’s Statement (not reported yet for September), there are 1,018,455 occupied households in the Baltimore DMA. In the September, 2008 figures reported by The Sun to ABC, the daily average for the paper was 218,923 and 350,640 on Sunday. By these numbers, daily household penetration had slipped to 21% and Sunday household penetration was at 39%.
Keeping in mind that the overall number of households in the Baltimore DMA grew 12% from 1996-2008, during this same period household penetration of the paper in the market dropped 40% on average on weekdays, and 33% on Sundays. While the Baltimore market added 112,355 households in that period, The Sun ended the period distributing 102,000 fewer papers on a typical weekday and 133,000 fewer papers on a typical Sunday.
Of course, in the same period, The Sun’s online audience went from nothing to more than three million visitors a month, from zero page views (The Sun’s web operation launched in September 1996) to more than 37 million a month in 2008. So it can be argued – credibly – that The Sun’s readership actually increased during the 12 years beginning in 1996.
But as robust as the online revenue stream is at The Sun and at similar metro news operations in other markets, the vast majority of revenue is still pegged to print. And when you look at the numbers across the past 12 years, it’s clear that local newspapers would be in a business-model crisis even without over-leveraged corporate owners or the current shaky economy.
Every indicator available to us says that print is not now and will not be the powerhouse driver of revenue it’s been historically. You can’t have your influence drop by 33-40% in 12 years and continue as if nothing’s changed. Slicing dollars and people off the cost structure isn’t enough. Newspapers need to start over, with a business model that acknowledges that the print cash cow has run dry and the digital future is still exchanging dollars for pennies as the audience and advertising moves.