Reporting your own demise
Tuesday, January 11th, 2005
Kudos to the NYTimes for shredding its own industry, including sister paper Boston Globe, with an article about artificial circulation practices. (What kinda dirt is the WSJ going to dig up about NYT now?)
Across the country each week, more than 1.6 million people who are not on newspaper subscriber rolls are being delivered copies that did not cost them a cent – but they are still being classified as paying customers, an analysis by The New York Times has found. The papers, which are typically paid for by advertisers, are delivered by small and large dailies across the country, including The Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal, The San Jose Mercury News and The Boston Globe.
The unsolicited deliveries were made possible by rule changes the newspaper industry approved three years ago. The new rules allowed so-called third-party sales – which the industry once shunned – to be counted as part of a newspaper’s total circulation. Without them, many newspapers would be losing circulation at a far higher rate. In the industry as a whole, circulation has been falling for a decade or more.
Maintaining the appearance of healthy circulation has been critical to newspapers at a time when the industry is losing advertisers to other media, like the Web and television. Because paid circulation determines in large part what publishers can charge for advertising – the lifeblood of an estimated $58 billion industry – any deep sustained losses threaten to erode the already shaken confidence of marketers and investors.
The article includes an anecdote about free papers passed out in a Salem, Va hospital, a wonderful ironic mirroring of the plight of the newspaper industry itself. “While some papers were left at the foots of beds of people too ill to respond, others were snapped up by patients like Thomas DeBusk Jr., 80, whose bright white hair and deep tan belied the fact that he had been in the hospital three times over the last few months for heart problems. ‘I check the obituaries each morning to see if I’m in there,’ Mr. DeBusk said.”