From Bullish to Bearish: Newspaper Ad Bureau Report Outlines Circulation Trends; Data Indicate Circulation Losses Are Recoverable If Right Steps Are Taken

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Newpaper Ad Bureau report outlines circulation trends; data indicate circulation losses are recoverable if right steps are taken

Newspaper circulation started 1991 bullish, with readers hungrily buying papers for Gulf war news, but ended bearish, drained by a lingering recession that drove weak papers out of business.

When it was over, virtually every negative trend of the past 20 years remained in decline: household penetration; readership among women and young people; regular, as opposed to occasional, readership; weakening weekday penetration.

By Sept. 30, the recession-characterized by circulation price hikes to offset declining advertising volume, newspaper closures and mergers, and cuts in costly distribution to outlying areas-left total weekday circulation 1.6% lower, or 61.5 million. That is not counting closures later in the year of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and Dallas Times-Herald. The declines hit all sizes of newspapers, especially large metro papers, but not all newspapers.

However, steeper readership declines of the 1970s and 1980s have substantially leveled off, according to Newspaper Advertising Bureau vice president Albert E. Gollin.

In his analysis, "An Assessment of Trends in U.S. Newspaper Circulation Readership," he outlines the challenges facing newspaper circulation, discusses causes, and suggests strategies.

"Building and sustaining circulation and readership are realistic, achievable goals," he says, pointing out that several papers have succeeded in expanding circulation and penetration.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show several large papers boosting circulation over 4%, including USA Today, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Denver Post, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, and the Nashville Tennessean.

Gollin called on newspapers to: target circulation-building programs at children and young adults, expand Newspaper in Education programs, create special editorial features to draw young readers into the paper, invest in converting occasional weekday readers into regular readers, integrate editorial strategies into long-term circulation and marketing plans.

"The trends I have assessed can be made to work in our favor if we confront their implications squarely and devote the resources of mind, money and organization needed to meet the challenge of change," he concludes.

He also says evidence suggests that much of the circulation loss in the last two years has been cyclical and will be restored when the economy recovers from recession.

Though a recovery this year is unlikely, he says, when it does come, newspapers will have to earn circulation gains by "improving their editorial products and customer services and by enhancing their central role as an information utility in the lives of an increasingly selective media public."

Newspapers are not suffering wrenching change alone, Gollin points out. So are other media. Broadcast television, for one, has suffered recessionary advertising declines as well as long-term loss of market share to cable television.

From 1970 to 1989 the number of U.S. adults grew 37% and the number of households jumped 46%, while daily circulation inched up 1.1%, and Sunday circulation grew 26.6%. As a result, newspaper penetration--the total number of newspapers sold as a percent of all households--sank to an all-time low. From a peak in the late 1940s at 130%, or 1.3 papers per home daily, penetration has fallen below 70%. That means less than seven out of 10 homes get a daily paper, about the same on Sunday.

The problem of declining readership is critical because, if advertisers cannot reach enough prospective buyers through newspaper ads, they will find other ways to market their products, and newspapers depend on advertising for about 80% of their revenue. …