Monday, May 08, 2006

Something completely different

Instead of rehashing the hash otherwise known as the latest plunge in newspaper circulation, let’s talk about something completely different, as the Monty Python gang used to say. Growth.

It’s happening Chicago, where the Tribune notched a 2.1% gain in daily circulation and 3.3% rise on Sunday. It’s also happening, in a more modest way, in San Francisco, where yet another free daily debuted last week in a market awash in giveaway papers.

But let’s not get irrationally exuberant. Not all the news is good.

Circulation this spring dropped an average of 2.5% for daily newspapers and 2.6% on Sunday in the six-month period ended in March, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry-funded entity that independently validates the numbers.

This compares with a daily drop of 2.6% in the six-month period ended in September, a slide of 1.9% in the prior six months and a stumble of 0.9% in the six months before that. In the same periods, average Sunday circulation fell, respectively, 3.1%, 2.5% and 1.5%.

The lower circulation reported by several of the largest metro dailies represents to some extent a strategic, if not entirely graceful, retreat from numbers that were too high in the first place. As discussed here earlier, newspapers in the last couple of years have been busy eliminating expensive and not particularly desirable discounted circulation and scrapping delivery to remote corners of their turf that was costly to maintain and also not warmly received by advertisers.

The light at the end of the tunnel, assuming there is one, may be exemplified by the circulation gains achieved at the Chicago Tribune. The Trib appears to have exited its exercise in circulation retrenchment and moved in the last six months to the more pleasant and fruitful task of building its home-delivery base by a solid 3.3%.

That’s significant, because the readers who pay full price for home delivery are the Holy Grail for advertisers. Assuming the Trib didn’t rely too heavily on discounting to recruit its new subs, the paper not only has increased the quantity of its circulation but also has improved the quality of its reader base.

The home-circulation push at the Trib is but one of several initiatives its management took to optimize the classic, big-city newspaper model. It also improved entertainment coverage, added more color pages and emphasized hard-hitting investigations. To the degree the Trib can sustain future growth and profitability in this fashion, other publishers eagerly will emulate it.

The other path to growth is exhibited in San Francisco. Although the traditional newspaper business is downright dismal for the Chronicle after daily circulation dropped a staggering 25.6% in six months to 398,246, the City by the Bay is the site of a freebie newspaper war.

In addition to the presence in the market of more alternative weeklies than a mere mortal can count, San Francisco now has two competing free daily tabloids. The Examiner, a plucky tab published by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, last week gained head-on competition from a newly launched San Francisco daily called, well, the San Francisco Daily.

The S.F. Daily, whose initial press run was a mere 5,000 copies, is noteworthy, because it is being produced by the publishing duo who built the Palo Alto Daily News into such a formidable force that the San Jose Mercury paid a handsome price to acquire the free paper a few months before Knight Ridder was put up for sale.

Can a city that seems to have forsaken its traditional paper successfully support a dueling pair of free dailies? Potentially, yes, because the two freebies are pursing different strategies.

The Examiner has endeavored with some success to pry mainstream retail and automotive advertisers away from the Chronicle by touting tightly focused circulation and far lower ad rates that the Chron can afford to charge. The SF Daily, reprising the Palo Alto formula, is going after small, neighborhood retailers who have limited budgets to reach a limited trading area. It's tricky to recruit the Mom and Pop advertisers, but, if the S.F. Daily is successful, it will own this rich, underserved market.

Both giveaway papers keep costs low by employing small editorial staffs who cover strictly local news, as well as commission-only sales people who eat only what they catch. Free circulation eliminates most marketing costs and requires only a minimal infrastructure of contract-delivery folks. While the Examiner has its own modest production facility, the SF Daily uses contract printers. In contrast to the high degree of unionization at metros like the Chronicle, workers at the free papers are not organized and work for leaner paychecks and limited, if any, benefits.

Thus, it appears that the future of the industry is shaping up as a classic battle between the forces of “Full Bodied” and those of “Less Filling.” Please drink your Kool-Aid responsibly.