Three Exceptions to E&P's '4-Year Circ Plunge' at Major Papers; I Wonder Why?

Ken Shepherd of NewsBusters posted Tuesday on Editor and Publisher's March 11 article listing the four-year circulation changes at the nation's top 20 newspapers, concentrating on the 20% loss at the Los Angeles Times during that period.

What's also compelling is that the Top 20 really has three winners and 17 losers during that four-year time frame, as the chart that follows demonstrates:

NewspCirc093003to093007

Though its print circulation has declined slightly, I consider the Wall Street Journal a winner because it has more than made up for its small loss in print circulation with hundreds of thousands of new paid online-only subscribers. In fact, the WSJ had 931,000 online subscribers in Spring of 2007, according to Wikipedia (in turn supported by this May 2007 Journal column). I'm not able to determine how many of them are online only, but if only 9% them are, the Journal has had a net gain in its paid subscriber base.

What do the three winners -- USA Today, the Journal, and the New York Post -- have in common? Paraphrasing esteemed economist Walter Williams (example here), if you said "Those papers are reasonably fair and balanced," go to the head of the class.

Although readers may disagree in a couple of instances, it's safe to say that "fair and balanced" is not the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of any of the other 15 -- or for that matter, the two publications (Dallas Morning News and Newsday) whose 2003 figures weren't used by E&P because of those publications' involvement in that year's circulation-padding scandal.

I believe that a large portion of the reason why the 15 publications listed above collectively lost 1 in 8 print subscribers during the four years shown is that they have long since stopped playing the news straight, and have been caught frequently in the act of not playing it straight. It has happened enough times, and with little if any signs of change or improvement, that many readers have simply said, "Who needs 'em?"

What's more, but not shown above -- If you compare the circ losses at the 15 losers during the past four years to their losses during the last 2-1/2 years -- losses that were detailed by yours truly last fall (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog) -- you'll find that five of them (New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, Arizona Republic, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution) had bigger losses during the last 2-1/2 years than they did during the entire four years. This means that these papers actually increased their circulation during the first 18 months of the four-year period before falling even more steeply that it would appear from the above chart.

So being fair and balanced pays, while not being so is expensive. When will the other 17 publications catch on to this concept?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.