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The Enquirer Does Less With Less, Loses Circulation

By Ben L. Kaufman · December 21st, 2009 · On Second Thought
Life can be tough at the top of the Enquirer food chain. Circulation (printed papers sold) continues to decline. The paper has retired, bought out and fired just about everyone it can to cut costs. More unpaid furloughs are likely, according to the recent blog post by CityBeat News Editor Kevin Osborne.

I’m not gloating. I’m a subscriber, reader and retiree. I’m a Cincinnati voter and taxpayer. For all those reasons, I wish the paper well.

I have no idea how profitable The Enquirer remains. The paper doesn’t say. It never does, at least publicly. Yet its slumping core paid circulation doesn’t encourage optimism.

Osborne already has reported some of the dismal numbers, but they warrant repeating. The Audit Bureau of Circulation, on which everyone relies, releases semi-annual numbers ending in March and September.

• The latest figures are Monday-Friday (avg.) 168,511; Saturday 170,918; and Sunday 257,857. Those are dramatic drops from last year at the same time: Monday-Friday (avg.) 193,326; Saturday 200,479; and Sunday 272,703.

• Five years earlier, the numbers were Monday-Friday (avg.) 188,280; Saturday 192,240; and Sunday 301,126.

• 10 years ago, the numbers were Monday-Friday (avg.) 203,337; Saturday 218,654; and Sunday 328,432.

I’m reluctant to join the “death spiral” chorus predicting an imminent end to printed daily newspapers, but there’s nothing atypical about our local situation except for the paucity of unemployed journalists creating new media to complement the shrunken daily. That, however, is consistent with Cincinnati’s motto, “Don’t do anything for the first time that you haven’t done before.”

What intrigues me, among many twists in the news media business, is the growing emphasis on “readership” rather than “circulation.” Readership certainly is greater than circulation, but it’s harder to prove.

The Enquirer’s parent company, Gannett, also owns most of the Ohio and Kentucky weeklies in the Tristate, and together those printed daily and weekly papers reach a helluva lot of readers. Moreover, weekly readers are a loyal bunch, willing to dig papers out of bushes and gutters.

So when Gannett’s local execs talk about readership, it’s less cynical and duplicitous than realistic. It does, moreover, affirm the role of the printed local paper … for the moment.

This matters. Gannett is the big regional player. In addition to Tristate papers, it owns The Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal and smaller dailies in Hamilton, Middletown and elsewhere. Whether there will be more coordination among them to cover our region in ways they once attempted individually is uncertain.

So is the future of print. Among the Smartest Guys in the Room, there are contradictory responses to numbers generally. Dow Jones quotes a Wachovia analyst, John Janedis, predicting Gannett ad revenue will fall 14 percent next year after a 30 percent decline this year. However, when Gannett quarterly figures recently beat Wall Street estimates, shares rose and took many other newspaper stocks with it.

Last month, Dow Jones added that shares of the New York Times Co. have more than doubled in price since early March. Gannett shares have more than quadrupled. McClatchy Co., E.W Scripps Co., Media General Inc. and Lee Enterprises Inc. have also made spectacular gains.

Granted, some of those increases come from staggeringly low prices, but up is better than down.

Editorandpublisher.com has been buzzing with Gannett topics, although none focuses on The Enquirer, The Star or The Courier-Journal. E&P Senior Editor Joe Strupp says Gannett has a new set of hoops through which its daily publishers and editors leap to “get our swagger back.”

Strupp says the latest “content priorities” were presented to assembled editors by Kate Marymont, vice president/news for Gannett's community publishing division, which includes all of its daily papers except USA Today.

Gannett, which falls in and out of love with formulas for success, is urging its dailies to improve watchdog journalism, reposition web sites for breaking news and better engage young readers and Sunday readers. If they have to bring execs together to urge that, what the hell are these editors doing now?

“These were intended to be the key strategies that we believe are important, for them to use in the key decisions about how to use resources,” Marymont said of the priority list, obtained by E&P. “We have asked (editors) to use them as a guide as they develop their strategic plans. It is almost a statement of philosophy rather than a template they have to fill out.”

OK. Now, will Gannett leave enough money in Cincinnati for The Enquirer to do these things? This long has been a source of tension and frustration at The Enquirer in its role as cash cow.

Doing more with less is bullshit. The paper needs people, and people need time to accomplish these priorities. If the paper’s reporters don’t produce, there is nothing on the web sites to win and hold younger readers who are the future of the Enquirer franchise.

More people must include more editors with time to think, read, consult and edit stories produced by their colleagues.

Retirements, buyouts and firings have depleted the editing corps at least as savagely as the reporting ranks.

I’ve been a reporter, and I’ve been an editor. Every reporter needs a good editor, a colleague whose commitment is making the reporter’s work as good as it can be for the readers and holding back work that falls short.

No writer enjoys being edited closely. Tough. That’s what editors are supposed to do. As a former colleague wailed in defense of her work, “Every word a pearl!” Maybe, but, as any shopper knows, necklaces have more or fewer pearls.

A good editor asks questions for which the reporter should have answers or never asked. That kind of exchange takes time. It’s true for photographers as well who need editors with a sharp sense of visual storytelling and a willingness to be sharp-elbowed advocates.

Ironically, there never has been a better time for hiring editors, with so many talented veterans freshly and unexpectedly in the job market. As I tell my reporting students at UC, even Nobel Laureates for Literature have editors … whom they unfailing thank at awards time.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Here’s more on readership. In mid-November, Scarborough Research said 74 percent of adults — nearly 171 million — in the United States read a newspaper in print or online during the past week. That’s readeship, not circulation.

Scarborough is a joint venture between two major audience researchers, Arbitron and Nielsen Company. Its Integrated Newspaper Audience study is the percentage of adults in the market who have read the printed newspaper over five week days or on Sunday or visited the newspaper’s web site(s) or did both during the past seven days.

“While our data does show that print newspaper readership is slowly declining, it also illustrates that reports about the pending death of the newspaper industry are not supported by audience data,” said Gary Meo, Scarborough senior vice president of print and digital media services. “Given the fragmentation of media choices, printed newspapers are holding onto their audiences relatively well and this is refreshing news.”

Scarborough also said dailies continue to attract educated, affluent readers. In an average week:

— 79 percent of adults employed in white collar positions read a newspaper in print or online.

— 82 percent of adults with household incomes of $100,000 or more read a printed newspaper in print or online.

— 84 percent of adults who are college graduates or who have advanced degrees read a printed newspaper in print or online.

“Printed newspapers have been trusted sources of news and information for decades, and many newspapers have continued that tradition by successfully extending their brands into the digital space,” Meo said. “In doing so, they are attracting an audience that has even stronger socioeconomic status — equally upscale with their print brethren, but younger.”

• Readership (above) is affluent and educated, but what happens when they tire of diminished content in the pages and web sites of American newspapers? At what point do cuts made in pursuit of financial stability so compromise the product that neither print nor digital suffices? Almost as urgent is demographics: People who buy newspapers are dying out. As we vanish, who will attract the ads that support the journalists who put out the print and online editions?

• Newspaper publishers seem to be overcoming their reluctance to charge for online content. What and how remain critical issues. For instance, do you charge only for sports (if you have a winning team) or for everything (equivalent to a subscription)? Do you insist on subscriptions or micropayments for each view? Who’s writing the software to make this easy, secure and reliable?

The general tone of the discussions is “it’s mad to keep giving content away.” Whether readers accustomed to free online content will pay is the question and risk.

• NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday recently interviewed Michael Specter about his new book, Denialism. “We can all believe irrational things,” Specter said. “The problem is that I think an increasing number of Americans are acting on those beliefs instead of acting on facts that are readily present.” NPR’s new web site has the text and an excerpt from his book. Given the frequency with which deniers make news — Obama’s birthplace wasn’t Hawaii, genetically engineered food is unnatural and bad and some immunizations should be avoided because they cause autism or some other ill — it’s worth a look.

• Minnesota Public Radio is expanding its news operation in stunning ways. In the past year, it’s devoted more money and bodies to news, adding 15 newscasts, for a total of 239 a week. MPR head Bill Kling told The Minneapolis Star Tribune that he can do this because of the stability of diverse funding. The move also reflects uncertainty about The Star Tribune, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, and the troubled St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“It seemed very important to say: What happens if we lose one of the newspapers?” Kling said. “What happens if we lose both of the newspapers? What happens if the television and cable news sources find that their economic models work better with controversy than with trying to provide depth in news stories?”

MPR is a conglomerate of 39 stations in Minnesota and neighoring states. It also has a digital arm, NewsQ, and recently was host to a conference, “The Future of News: Creating a New Model for Regional Journalism in America.”

•Sarah Palin is attractive, unfettered by any need to be informed or consistent in her utterances and fortunate in her critics. What I don’t understand is how even young guys at The Weekly Standard continue to thrash around in literary lust for her. In a sense, the magazine’s elders discovered her for the Lower 48 during a Weekly Standard readers’ cruise to Alaska. Editors were smitten. Now, later but unwiser, they continue to wave her standard, and inexplicably they’re working to fulfill Democratic dream that Palin will lead the Republican ticket in 2012.

The Weekly Standard has a provocative essay by author and law professor Robert F. Nagel, who blames our increasingly toxic public discourse on U.S. Supreme Court decisions that weaken historic protections for personal reputation. He begins with the 1964 Times v Sullivan libel decision that opened up infinite possibilities for investigative/watchdog reporting. That ruling made it almost impossible for public officials to sue for libel when reporting focused on their activities. The court quickly followed with a similar ruling easing critical reporting on public figures. Further decisions have reduced the risks of critical reporting.

Nagel says the justices ignored or dismissed deleterious effects on public discourse and the strength of American political arguments before 1964. He says the rulings dissuade reporters from the kind of slogging we once did to avoid libel suits; it’s better to say I didn’t know than I knew and ignored the possibility that my story wasn’t true. Nagel also says the loss of protection for private reputation dissuades many good people from politics and public service. Instead, we get the partisan and personal vitriol as well as voyeurism that permeates politics today.

• Not to be outdone in kick-ass essays, The Progressive produces a nonpartisan interview with Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law professor and chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the original $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. Warren bemoans the ways that public money was the first relief offered to banks that didn’t share it with borrowers. She admires Hillary Clinton as a senator but wonders what hope there is when someone so savvy caves in to the bankers when it comes to voting to relieve their pain.

Most interesting, Warren describes differing ways that men and women see the economic crisis: Men see their recession-related problems as personal failure, but women see the same problems as something to be solved. When times are good, men handle the family money. When times get tough, women take over.

• In HuffingtonPost, Warren elaborates on her Progressive interview (above), saying, in part, “Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street. …

“The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully-employed male have been flat since the 1970s. But core expenses kept going up. By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago — for a house that was, on average, only 10 percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance. … The contrast with the big banks could not be sharper. While the middle class has been caught in an economic vise, the financial industry that was supposed to serve them has prospered at their expense.”

• Politico.com reports that NPR asked politics correspondent Mara Liasson to reconsider her regular gig on Fox News, and she told them to stuff it. It was the same with Juan Williams, whom NPR asked to stop associating himself with public broadcasting when he’s on Fox. In both cases, these are longstanding arrangements for NPR stars on the unfailingly partisan Fox.

• On the final PBS The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the anchor offered the guidelines embraced by the program:

— Do nothing I cannot defend.
— Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
— Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
— Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
— Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
— Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
— Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
— I am not in the entertainment business.



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