Aided by a change in the way circulation statistics are calculated, The Kansas City Star was able to get its Sunday circulation figure back up over the 300,000 benchmark for the six-month period ending March 31.
Overall, however, considering the direction of newspaper advertising, the picture for the newspaper industry remains grim.
Figures released earlier this week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) show that The Star’s Sunday circulation was 305,113 for the period ending March 31, compared to 290,302 for the period that ended last Sept. 30. (The figures for both periods include digital subscriptions, which make up more than 10 percent of circulation.)
When the 290,000 figure came out last fall, it shocked many Star watchers because it was the first time in the modern newspaper era that circulation had fallen below 300,000.
At least partly to mitigate the ongoing circulation declines around the nation, ABC, which is run by publishers, changed the rules to include distribution categories that, until now, have not been included in the “top line” circulation figure. Among those categories are newspapers distributed through newspapers in education (NIE) programs and copies sold in bulk to places like hotels and restaurants.
Where ABC’s top line formerly was “total average paid circulation,” it is now “total average circulation.”
Because of the changes, ABC cautioned against making direct comparisons of the March data with data from earlier reporting periods.
The Star’s two other circulation categories — daily (Monday through Friday) and Saturday — also benefited from the change. For the most recent period, daily circulation stood at 209,258, compared with 206,441 for September, and Saturday circulation was 215,961, compared with 211,966 for September.
Unfortunately for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the rules changes weren’t sufficient to give that paper a bump over last September’s Sunday figures.
Like The Star, the Post-Dispatch fell below a key benchmark — 400,000 Sunday sales — last year, when circulation dipped to 365,589. The comparable ABC figure for March 31 was 360,450.
However you look at it, it’s fair to say that circulation revenue at The Star, the Post-Dispatch and the vast majority of daily newspapers in the U.S. is continuing to fall. And when that fact is combined with the unrelenting decrease in newspaper advertising, it should make the most ardent of believers in newspapers avert their gaze.
Alan D. Mutter, who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog out of San Francisco, reported recently that “although television, online, radio and even magazine ad revenues all moved into positive territory by the end of 2010, newspaper (ad) sales dropped 6.3 percent.”
One of the worst first-quarter showings was turned in by The Star’s owner, McClatchy Co., where ad revenue fell 11 percent from the first quarter of 2010.
For the industry as a whole, Mutter said that annual print and digital newspaper ad sales have now dropped nearly 50 percent from the all-time high of $49.4 billion in 2005.
As an example of the dreadful collapse, Mutter pointed to automotive advertising. “Publishers, who collectively sold more than $5 billion in automotive classifieds as recently as 2004, booked a mere $1.1 billion in the category in 2010,” Mutter said.
During the same period, auto advertising on local TV stations jumped nearly 54 percent, to $2.6 billion, and online auto advertising rose nearly 14 percent to $2.8 billion.
“Because a growing number of well-informed consumers make their decisions before contacting dealers,” Mutter said, “the point of sale has moved to the web, not the showroom. Dealers don’t need newspapers to remind consumers they are there, because empowered consumers know who the dealers are, know what models are in stock and know how much they should be paying for a car.”
So, in many case, the information “vehicle” — the newspaper — is cut out.
For consumers, the change has been fantastic. For newspapers, it’s been very tough, and the road ahead doesn’t look any better.