The Post will survive the recession and the Web

Recently released figures showing a sharp drop in Post circulation have prompted two predictable reader responses: angst and glee.

Older subscribers, most of whom do not read news online, have expressed fear the printed Post will soon disappear. Chronic critics of Post news coverage and editorials have celebrated plummeting readership.

Both are myths. The newspaper isn’t about to vanish. And despite eroding circulation, combined print and online readership of The Post has never been higher.

The new figures show that for the six months ending March 31, The Post’s weekday newspaper circulation dropped 13.1 percent, while Sunday circulation declined 8.2 percent from the same period a year earlier.

The numbers seem worse than they are. Circulation for the comparable period was artificially high because The Post sold more than a million extra copies during President Obama’s inauguration. The decline is more modest when looking only at home delivery circulation, where The Post dropped by 6.4 percent weekdays and 5.7 percent Sundays.

Still, the numbers continue a long, worrisome trend. Weekday circulation is about 578,500, far below its peak of roughly 830,000 in 1994. Sunday circulation stands at close to 800,000; its high mark was more than 1.1 million in 1992. Both daily and Sunday circulation are at their lowest levels in about 30 years.

And many readers are upset over recent price increases at a time when The Post’s staff and content have been reduced by cost-cutting. In January, the home delivery rate increased a dime, to 59 cents a day. The previous month, newsstand prices were raised from 50 to 75 cents on weekdays and from $1.50 to $2 on Sunday.

The price hikes were necessary to offset a continuing advertising decline, the core problem facing newspapers. The Post lost money last year. Despite a profitable fourth quarter and improved economic climate, first-quarter ad revenue fell 8 percent from the same period last year.

With these trends, will the printed Post survive? Sure. Here’s why.

Its market penetration, measured by the percentage of area households it reaches, remains the highest among newspapers in major metropolitan areas. Scarborough Research last year put it at 33 percent on weekdays and 44 percent on Sundays.

Scarborough says Washington is the nation’s most affluent and highly educated market, which advertisers love. And it’s tied with the San Francisco area for the highest proportion of baby boomers; many still prefer print to reading news online.

For years, The Post prevented sharp circulation drops by keeping the paper’s price low. At metro papers, advertising can account for 70 to 75 percent of revenues, with circulation providing the rest. But even with the most recent bump to counter ad losses, The Post costs less than most competitors.

“This is an incredible market for people who like to read newspapers,” said Post Circulation Vice President Gregg J. Fernandes. And on cost, he said, “we are still one of the most reasonably priced in the country.”

Audience erosion is hardly limited to newspapers, which tend to fixate on their plight. In fact, most traditional media have suffered sharp losses. For local and network television, some declines have been breathtaking.

Despite media fragmentation and shifts to the Internet, newspapers remain powerful advertising instruments. They generate lots of revenue, much of it from coupons and other “preprints” where the cost to advertisers is tied closely to circulation. In the short term, most can remain profitable by operating on a shoestring if need be.

But ambitious journalism is expensive, and that gets to a core challenge for The Post. It can survive. But for readers, the key question is: at what level of quality?

To remain among journalism’s elite, The Post needs to minimize circulation erosion while boosting revenue elsewhere. Internal tracking shows the Web site’s average monthly audience of unique visitors is higher than ever, but it needs growth to generate greater revenue. New products, such as the locally focused Capital Business, must thrive. The Post lags in exploiting potentially lucrative mobile news delivery devices such as the iPad. And its Sunday paper, the week’s largest revenue producer, must flourish. A multi-department committee will soon present recommendations on ways to bolster the Sunday edition.

Together, these things may offset inevitable circulation losses as aging print readers depart and are replaced by younger ones who consume news electronically or through niche products.

Despite cost-cutting reductions and the recent price increase, the printed Post remains a bargain. It’s still cheaper than a cup of coffee. It perks you up. And it lasts much longer.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on May 16, 2010.

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