Journal Sentinel’s Circulation Problem
The statistics point to underlying problems. Meanwhile, some stories are undermining the brand.
Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported some good news, a significant growth in the number of its digital subscribers, who now make up nearly one-fifth of subscribers. The bad news was that it has so far had little impact on revenue, which is down from a year ago.
The online revolution continues to kill newspaper readership and revenue. Nationally newspaper revenues plummeted by 51 percent since 2006, dropping from $49.3 billion in 2006 to $23.9 billion in 2011. During that time print revenue dropped by $26 billion and online revenue rose by less that $600 million, replacing less than two percent of the lost revenue from print. Wow.
The decline in publishing revenue for Journal Communications was almost as bad: it dropped by 48 percent, from $328.5 million in 2006 to $170.9 million in 2011.
Since the merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel in the mid-1990s, the paper’s circulation has been in a free fall: the Sunday paper has gone from 466,000 subscribers to slightly more than just over 299,000 in 2012, while the daily paper dropped even more drastically, from 328,000 to about 175,600.
But beginning in 2012, the paper ended free online usage and began a metered system that requires you to pay after you view a certain number of articles. (It’s free for print subscribers.) That began pushing a lot of folks to sign up and 19 percent of daily subscriptions now come from online and mobile subscribers. When you add in digital subscribers, the Sunday and daily circulation actually rose by 3.5 percent and daily by nearly 10 percent in 2012.
But how many of those digital subscribers have simply switched from print? JS Publisher Betsy Brenner says the company’s data shows that “few readers ‘drop’ print for digital. Older readers prefer the printed paper; younger readers pick up the digital edition. And we have nearly 12,000 ‘digital only’ subscribers. Over 70% of those ‘digital onlys’ live outside of the area where we deliver a printed Journal Sentinel.”
That sounds good. But the data in the JS story covering this shows that daily print circulation declined by 7.9 percent, or 13,217 subscribers, while Sunday circulation dropped by 8.2 percent or 26,753 subscribers. My guess is that most of these folks just switched to digital subscriptions, meaning many traditional, older readers are making the switch, despite what Brenner says. Otherwise, there was a dreadful drop off in print subscribers in one year, which could be even worse.
Less print readers means you must charge less for your print ads, which still make far more than digital ads. And any growth in digital readership that involves transitioning your current, older readers to the online product doesn’t solve the problems of an imperiled business model.
The Journal Sentinel’s online and print market penetration is still impressive: Pew rates it as sixth best among newspapers nationally. But this is a comparison to other media entities having a huge problem drawing younger readers.
All the statistics suggest younger Americans are not following newspapers like their parents did. National blogger Alan D. Mutter, who held editing positions with a couple top newspapers, takes a dim view of the prevailing trends: “Unless newspaper companies find ways to connect to younger audiences,” he predicts, “there is a clear and present danger that they will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”
Ben Poston’s Last Hurrah
The key value of the newspaper — the main thing that can drive readership — is the community’s trust in its accuracy and fairness. The newspaper has been undermining its reputation with its run of increasingly ridiculous stories on how the Milwaukee Police Department handles crime data. The stories are an obvious attempt to embarrass Police Chief Ed Flynn, who has clearly gotten on the bad side of the paper’s editors, and all have been written by reporter Ben Poston, who is leaving soon for a job with the Los Angeles Times.
The latest story was co-written by John Diedrich, but the results weren’t any better. The newspaper made it Wednesday’s top story and jumped it from the front page to two full pages inside, with all kind of sidebars and graphics, all to tell us that just 2.4 percent of all burglaries over a period of six years were wrongly reported as thefts.
Off-hand, this sounds like a brief for page two or three of the Local section. Needless to say, the 2.4 percent figure wasn’t run in the headline, for fear no one would read the story.
Why does the story not matter? Let me count the ways:
-The report shows these kind of mistakes were also made under Flynn’s predecessor, chief Nannette Hegerty (and at about the same rate), undermining the idea the JS originally tried to perpetrate, that Flynn was cooking the books;
-Burglary and theft are both property crimes, so it would not affect the total number of property crimes reported by the department;
-Nor would it change the significant decline in property crimes reported under Flynn;
-Nor would it change the 6.5 percent increase in burglary on Flynn’s watch that was previously reported. That’s because the error rate on reporting burglaries was about the same every year, meaning the overall rate of change wouldn’t go up or down.
The newspaper tries to bury this last fact, reporting that “The yearly average of misclassified burglaries under Flynn is slightly higher than the last two years of the term of previous chief.” If so, the difference must be microscopic. The story says burglaries increased 2.4% over the last four years (on Flynn’s watch), but the 900 wrongly reported burglaries over all six years (when a total of 37,638 was originally reported) is also a 2.4 percent error rate. So the error rate was almost exactly the same under the two chiefs. To hide this from readers, the newspaper doesn’t provide a sidebar listing the number of misreported burglaries. Apparently there was no room for this in the huge, two-page spread.
To compound this foolishness, the newspaper suggests the misreported data could hamper crime-fighting efforts and managed to find one expert, Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus (presumably meaning he’s retired) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who says, “If they don’t have a record of a pattern of burglaries, then more people are more likely to be burglarized.” But they do have a record, one that was accurate for 97.8% of burglaries. Exactly how much would that hamper crime fighting?
The story is an embarrassment. When you begin to do articles that hide the truth from readers, you are undermining the very reason people buy the newspaper.
-The cost of a digital subscription is 99 cents a week, or $51.48 per year, compared to anywhere from $130 to $180 a year for print (the paper seems to be very open to negotiating). Digital, of course, eliminates the high cost of paper and printing.
-My story on the need to end duplication in county government generated lots of interesting comments and debate. Readers are divided on whether — and how — to reduce the size of the county board. The comments deserve a more considered response by me at some point. The issue, I suspect, is not going to go away.
People: Ben Poston, Betsy Brenner, Edward A. Flynn, John Diedrich, Nannette Hegerty
Government: Milwaukee Police Department