In a letter posted to Romenesko (no comments allowed, otherwise I’d just post this there), Matt Baldwin of MediaNews Group wonders why there’s so much focus on reporting declining reporting newspaper circulation instead of celebrating the much more robust overall audience, including online, which has been exploding with growth in recent years.
He’s right, to a point. We do tend to dwell on the audited newspaper circulation numbers when they are reported twice yearly. But we do it largely because those are numbers that can directly affect a news organization’s ability to grow revenue. If circulation is up, newspapers traditionally have been able to charge more for ads. If it’s down, as it has been consistently in recent years, it adds to the revenue crisis by devaluing the printed product.
I’m a cheerleader for interactive, probably to a fault. After 12 years building the business, that’s my bias. But as much as online growth matters, print circulation matters just as much at the moment. Yes, digital audience is growing and digital revenues will carry news organizations forward, but due to the competitive environment online, there’s currently not nearly enough online income to make up for the shortfall on the print side.
So circ. matters, and I think it’s right to pay attention to the numbers.
But I’m puzzled by this piece of Baldwin’s argument:
Judging a newspaper by the number of copies in the market makes no more sense than counting the number of television sets to evaluate a TV station. To paraphrase a recent United States President, “It’s the audience, stupid!”
Counting distributed copies strikes me as the best – if not only – way to judge the effectiveness of the printed paper in reaching an audience. It’s not at all like counting TV sets; that analog would be counting newsstands or newspaper trucks. Counting circulation counts consumption of the print product. Whether a paper is paid or free, it’s essentially valueless until someone picks it up and reads it.
Newspaper companies have finally been reaching new people in new ways in the past decade, people who are establishing habits that may not include the printed newspaper at all. Interactive continues to be a substantial success and a growth engine in most markets. I get as frustrated as Matt Baldwin does that the stories about circulation declines – often written by print newsrooms – neglect to mention the enormous upside opportunities. But it’s far too soon to ignore print circulation – and its associated revenue – unless we’re ready to make the leap to an all-digital future.
And that’s a post for another day.