Monday, August 23, 2010

Flagship newspapers wane in audience mix

The flagship newspaper produces barely half of the weekday audience delivered by some major metro publishers, according to an analysis of data recently issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

While papers like the Kansas City Star continue to pursue the traditional model of publishing only the main title and a free once-a-week advertising product sent to the homes of non-subscribers, the ABC reports that papers like the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News have created such a wide variety of products that the flagship paper produces just 56% of the average weekday circulation in each of their respective markets.

There are two reasons behind the shift in the product mix:

:: The first reason, which is bad news, is that newspaper circulation has nosedived in recent years. This results from a growing consumer preference for Internet and mobile news, as well as aggressive efforts by profit-challenged publishers to cut expenses by trimming the delivery of papers to distant readers and fickle customers who subscribe only as long as they can get deeply discounted rates.

:: The second reason, which is good news, is that foresighted publishers are creating niche products to try to capture readers who historically were unlikely to buy the legacy newspaper – and, of course, the advertisers who covet them as customers.

The Tribune and Morning News are examples of a trend that is likely to gather momentum as publishers forsake the ancient, one-size-fits-all newspapering model in favor of producing portfolios of print and digital products tailored to selected consumers and advertisers.

The reach of the newspapers in Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City and a handful of other markets was revealed last week in an new reporting format provided by the ABC, an industry-funded group that is paid by publishers to audit their circulation. While the ABC to date has released comprehensive audience data for only 17 papers, the organization promised to provide information on more publishers in the future. (The ABC press release contains links to the detailed reports for the papers discussed in this post.)

As illustrated below, the product portfolios of both the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News include publications aimed at young adults and those who prefer to read Spanish-language publications. In a new wrinkle for the ABC, subscriptions to the electronic editions offered by both publishers also are counted in the daily and Sunday audience numbers.

Beyond the products the publishers have in common, the Tribune publishes a free tabloid written by and for teenagers and the Morning News delivers a free, weekly TMC advertising product. TMC stands for total market coverage and such products usually consist of a bundle of free-standing ad inserts delivered to the homes of those who do not subscribe to the paper.

For the time being, flagship newspapers – especially the Sunday editions often responsible for producing half the sales in any given week – are the dominant revenue driver for publishers.

Given the likely future contraction of flagship circulation and the concurrent efforts of publishers to diversify as rapidly as they can, it may not be long before the once-mighty daily newspaper itself is just one of many niche products.


Blogger turkeymonkey said...

Curious: How many of the niche magazines and weeklies produced by newspapers have some kind of digital strategy?

6:40 AM  
Blogger Ramblin' Man said...

Alan, you always have an interesting perspective. I wish, though, that you would clarify when you make a statement like "newspaper circulation has nosedived." The smaller, community newspapers tell us that their circulation is holding and several have reported gains.

Many of those papers, especially weeklies, don't report to ABC. There are far more small, weekly papers in the country than there are daily newspapers, so they should not be lumped together with the metro declines in circulation.

Also, you article points out that papers like the Tribune have created numerous niche products. If the hour glass is turned over, have you lost any sand? Add in online readership, and many, if not most, papers are reporting significant gains.

There's no doubt that delivery methods are changing, but to continually hear about falling circulation and falling revenue without addressing the gains made in new media and community newspapers is a disservice to the industry. Newspapers remain the most trusted source for news, and most of the online news available is generated by newspapers.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Ramblin' Man:
"Newspapers remain the most trusted source for news, and most of the online news available is generated by newspapers."

I agree with the latter and hope the former remains true, but I don't think Alan was commenting on either.

As to the "have we lost sand" question I think the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Consider:

-ABC has been reporting declining circs consistently for decades. I'm sure there are some papers with circ growth, but the problem is sufficiently widespread that we should treat it with urgency rather than use the exceptions as justification for inaction.

-Online readers spend far less time (1/100th if memory serves) with newspaper content than their print counterparts.

As for the niche pubs Alan mentions, I think we can deduce from proxies that the circ of these products is unlikely to compensate for declines at the core. The proxies that come to mind are industry revenues and US consumption of newsprint (see Both have fallen off a cliff.

The industry needs to stop its desperate search for a factoid that will justify its continuing unwillingness to re-examine its one-size-fits-all model. The verdict is in - readers want what they want, not what the editor thinks will appeal to some fictitious average of the readers in his market. Personalization, in other words.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Scott Ruecker said...

Sounds to me like someones market research finally paid off. Seeking and trying to nab niche markets is very forward thinking for the newspaper industry. They are still dealing with the fact that they have no real control anymore. The AZ Republic here in Phoenix is doing a similar thing in making their paper and web presence crossover.

12:05 AM  

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