By Max Jones
TERRE HAUTE — Whenever I speak to groups or individuals around the community about the state of the newspaper industry, I often get confused looks when I say that newspaper readership is growing rapidly and has never been higher.
“Why then,” I am asked, “is news about the industry so bad? All we hear about is declining circulation, layoffs, bankruptcies and closures!”
These are indeed tough times in the newspaper industry, as with almost every other industry. The global economic distress of the past year has led to a steep dip in advertising sales, the primary source of revenue for newspapers. Profits are down, and some newspapers, especially in highly competitive metropolitan areas, are having a hard time paying their bills, not to mention meeting their debt obligations to investors. Just this past week, we learned that average daily newspaper circulation had declined 7.1 percent in the past six months.
Challenges abound in this financial climate for our industry in general. Individual newspapers, on the other hand, have their own stories to tell. In many cases, as with the Tribune-Star, that story isn’t so bad. Yes, lower revenues have been met with corresponding expense reductions, including a painful reduction in our work force earlier this year. But other fundamentals of our business are holding up.
Average daily circulation at the Tribune-Star, which serves a nine-county area in west-central Indiana and east-central Illinois, remained strong the past 18 months. We’re proud of that. Our circulation was relatively stable during that period at approximately 25,000. On Sundays, that number is higher, about 28,000.
While we have experienced a slight drop in paid circulation, it’s nowhere near the national average. We recently received very good news when March 2009 circulation figures showed 114 more subscription starts than stops.
While circulation of our printed product has been steady or showing only a slight decrease, overall readership is higher than ever.
How can that be?
Keep a couple things in mind. Independent research shows that 2.1 readers consume each printed daily newspaper we produce. The number is higher, 2.4 readers, for Sunday newspapers. That means, while our average circulation is around 25,000, actual readership of the print edition is more than double that number.
Still, that’s not the half of it.
For more than 10 years, the Tribune-Star has offered a free online edition containing most of the daily news, photos, features and opinions we produce. Over the years, online readership has exploded. Just last month, we recorded more than a quarter million unique visitors to our Web site, www.tribstar.com. In the past year, we recorded more than 16 million page views.
The online edition certainly has expanded the scope of our readership. While it is true that some people who once paid for the information we produce now read it online for free, the Internet has allowed us to reach readers once unavailable to us with our print product. And those who read us online can do so at their convenience using computers and cell phones.
Despite the rapid growth of online readership, stable circulation of the print edition indicates that a printed daily newspaper will be available in Terre Haute for a long, long time. What’s more, history tells us that this recession will end and the economy will grow again. When it does, ad revenues will rebound and many of the struggles newspapers are experiencing will ease.
That does not mean newspapers can rely solely on their ages-old print business model forever. This is a period of transition, and legions of smart, creative people are working and experimenting to craft a new business model for newspapers that will allow an independent press to live on.
Donna Barrett, president and CEO of Community Newspapers Holdings Inc., the Tribune-Star’s parent corporation, does a very good job of explaining more about the current status of the newspaper industry in a Flashpoint essay published today on Page D3 of this section. I recommend you read it.
Most people can’t imagine their community without a local newspaper. Nor should they have to. Despite industry challenges, the future is far from bleak. At the Tribune-Star, we’re optimistic and enthusiastic about that future.
Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by e-mail at email@example.com.