Magazine article Editor & Publisher

It's Money That Matters

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

It's Money That Matters

Article excerpt

Metros make circulation gains

Pricing policy appears to be the driver for the papers with the best numbers in most recent ABC reporting period

In the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reporting period concluded in September, the most important influence on newspaper circulation was: (A) The single-copy sales spike after the events of Sept. 11. (B) New ABC rules that now permit bulk sales and steeply discounted subscriptions to be counted as top-line paid circulation. (C) None of the above.

Go to the head of the class if you picked (C).

For all the talk that this reporting period would usher in a new age -- first because of the new rules, and later because of the terrorist attacks on America -- the fact is that for the vast majority of papers reporting in this ABC FAS-FAX, single-copy and subscription pricing held the greatest sway over which direction circulation numbers went. As Cyndi Lauper sang back in the 1980s, money changes everything.

As it turns out, only a few papers took aggressive advantage of the new reporting rules.

By far the biggest daily-circulation winner in this FAS-FAX, which compiled publisher reports of their average circulations over the six- month period ended Sept. 30, was the New York Post, which last year cut its daily cover price to 25 cents from 50 cents. Sales of the tabloid jumped 22.2%, to 533,860.

By far the biggest daily-circulation losers -- on purpose -- were the Denver dailies, with pricing again a key factor. In January, they formally ended their long and brutal newspaper war, which included annual subscription prices cheaper than a barbershop haircut. They pushed their pricing up to industry norms, and, as a result, the Rocky Mountain News' average of 309,938 copies is 24.5% lower than it reported last year and The Denver Post's average, 305,929, is down 25%. Last year at this time, the Rocky and the Post were, respectively, the 16th and 17th biggest papers in America. Now, they are 27th and 29th.

Somewhere in the middle among big metro circulation losers was the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which declined 8.5%, to 255,098. The big reason for the drop: The Journal Sentinel stopped offering 50% discounts to new subscribers. "It was a high-churn group of subscribers," said spokesman Bob Dye. "We thought [ending the discount] was a good business decision that would help us on the revenue side, and that it wasn't worth it for the high churn we were getting." The angle of the drop, though, was steeper than the paper had expected, Dye said.

The Los Angeles Times also took a hit because it chose to raise its weekday single-copy price to 50 cents from 25 cents. Measured on the Monday-to-Friday basis it has used in recent years, the L.A. Times declined 6.4%, to 967,226, in this period.

From now on, however, the L.A. Times, like many other big papers, is choosing to emphasize its late-week issues, and no wonder: In this FAS- FAX, it reported its Thursday-to-Saturday circulation average as 1,000,610.

The exception to the pricing rule was the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which increased its weekday single-copy price to 35 cents from a quarter in its core circulation area -- yet managed a 1.7% increase in total paid circulation. "Research showed our single-copy buyers took great value in the newspaper, and even at the higher price, it's still only 35 cents," President and Editor Paul Tash said.

After decades of sometimes intense debate, ABC with this FAS-FAX implemented rules permitting papers to include bulk-sales copies sold for free distribution by hotels, airlines, universities, and others, as well as individual newspapers sold for as little as 25% of the "base price" of a copy or subscription. …

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