Friday, November 03, 2006

The U.S. Daily Newspaper earned its fate

If you're reading this blog, you may very well not be reading a daily newspaper, a course of action not even this correspondent would recommend.

One of the great tragedies of the modern world is that daily newspapers in the United States, which remain the single best source for staying informed on current events, whether they're happening around the globe, the country or in your very own backyard, are in a precipitous decline.

To be blunt, the U.S. newspaper industry is sucking wind. And that's putting it mildly.

Earlier this week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which measures the number of copies that newspapers sell (as well as some weekly newspapers and magazines), reported that the U.S. daily newspaper industry, on average, is selling 2.8 percent fewer newspapers this year than it was last year.

In some cases, the drop is extraordinary. The Los Angeles Times is selling 8 percent fewer newspapers this year than it was a year ago. It wasn't all that long ago that the Los Angeles Times boasted a daily circulation in excess of 1 million.

But, recently, top executives of the paper cut back on some of their circulation drives and, as a result, the paper now sells 775,766 copies, on average, during the week. That's a drop of between 300,000 - 400,000 copies since 2000, when the paper was purchased by Tribune Company.

This story is seen all around the country. Newspapers are losing ground as print products.

In fact, of the top 10 newspapers in the United States, only two, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, reported circulation gains.

Unlike their brethren in the daily newspaper industry, these two newspapers are tabloids. They tend toward using sensational headlines, which capture their readers' interest and, as a result, are purchased, usually at a convenience store or in a box or at a newsstand.

The way they present the leading issues of the day -- whether it's a national or international story or just a local, juicy crime article -- bothers their colleagues at more sedate newspapers -- to no end.

People who work at tabloids, the purists among journalists will say, are not real journalists. They're all about hype just so they can sell an extra copy of their paper.

And that criticism might actually be justified. But at least the editors and reporters at the New York Post and the Daily News are doing something to ensure their future.

As New York Post editor Col Allen said recently, American newspapers, if they're not the Post and the Daily News, are "boring as bat shit."

About a year ago, American daily newspaper executives began to wake up to the fact that fewer people were reading them -- at least as print products. While their Internet sites were gaining traction, they still weren't covering their paper's costs.

This circulation decline is attributable, in many ways, to the fact that few, if any, top newspaper executives have a background in circulation. Publishers and their bosses tend to come up through the advertising and editorial ranks. Sometimes they'll come up through the finance or company's legal ranks.

But rarely, if ever, is someone anointed a publisher who has a background in selling the newspaper. Which is tragic. Because if there's any one individual at the newspaper who is cognizant of how the paper is received in the community it serves, it's the executive carrying the title of Circulation Director.

As a result, the people running daily newspapers in the United States haven't a clue as to what their readers are thinking. Oh, they might have some idea because they've asked their circulation director for information about their readers and non readers, but they don't carry their knowledge in their gut -- like their circulation director does.

The great tragedy of the American newspaper industry, if it were to disappear one day, is that there's no one who will cover a community, a nation and the world with as much depth as it does.

The television and radio networks, their affiliates, and independent radio and television stations, can only skim the surface of the issues. That's not a criticism of how they do their job. It's reality. Magazines only come out once a week and they tend to cover large geographic areas.

I grew up in the New York metropolitan area and became a daily New York Times reader when I was 15. I'm still one to this very day. My dad also read the Times as well as The Wall Street Journal; on the evening train home from New York, he'd purchase the the Post and bring it home. We always had fun laughing at the Post's headlines.

One of the things that my dad noticed on the train was that, in the morning, people tended to buy The Times and The Journal and read them cover to cover. In fact, the morning train was as quiet as a library because people were devouring every sentence published in the Times or the Journal.

But in the late afternoon or evening, when these people were coming home, they bought the Post or the Daily News. They were stock brokers, investment bankers or leading executives at Fortune 500 companies. A well-educated, high-income, sober group.

I still recall learning about the appeal of the New York Post from my dad. He asked an investment banker why he bought the Post every evening.

"Easy," he said. "I read the Times and the Journal in the morning. At 10 am I've made a deal. At 2 pm I've lost a deal. At the end of the day, I want to read about the nigger in Queens who's got it worse off than I do."

Say what you will about the New York Post. At least the editors know their audience.

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