A letter writer in today’s Kansas City Star dishes out perhaps the most lavish praise I have ever seen or heard for the paper, lauding it for “in-depth reporting to be of worldwide quality.”
I don’t know about worldwide quality, but, yes, The Star is a damn good paper…even in its much diminished, basement-budget state.
Still, the number of people who share letter writer Stewart Grant’s sky-high opinion of The Star is obviously dwindling, as the most recent circulation figures clearly indicate.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media — formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations — The Star’s circulation, like that of many other metropolitan dailies, continues to slip badly.
And that’s the case even when digital subscriptions are included.
The Star’s average Sunday circulation went from 254,111 in the fall of 2013 to 242,583 as of the end of last month.
Over the last five years, the Sunday drop-off has been a startling 27 percent — from 307,794 in 2009 to the current 242,583.
It’s just about the same story for average Monday-Friday circulation, which fell from 216,226 to 155,465 — 28 percent — between 2009 and this year.
The situation is even worse in St. Louis, where average Sunday circulation for the Post-Dispatch has plunged 43 percent over the last five years — from 401,427 to 228,703. (Average daily circulation fell 29 percent, from 213,472 to 150,835.)
…As a side note, it is puzzling to me that The Star, in a metropolitan area of about 2 million people, has a larger circulation than the Post-Dispatch, which is in a market of about 2.8 million. But, then again, maybe that speaks to the difference in quality between the two papers. It seems to me — and from what I’ve heard — the quality of the Post-Dispatch has suffered more than that of The Star since both were sold in the mid-2000s.
One problem for traditional newspapers, of course, has been the proliferation of free news and opinion outlets. But another problem, in my view, is that a defeatist attitude has set in at the corporate offices of chains, like McClatchy and Lee Enterprises, the owners, respectively, of The Star and the Post-Dispatch.
McClatchy, based in Sacramento, and Lee, based in the Davenport, IA, made big mistakes by expanding when powerhouse operations like KnightRidder (owner of The Star and others) and Pulitzer (the Post-Dispatch and others) saw the writing on the wall and realized it was time to get out.
Now, those upstarts-turned-suckers are licking their wounds, mired in huge debt and paralyzed by fiscal fear.
They don’t dare invest more in their properties because, being publicly owned, it might well cut further into the value of their stock.
If I was calling the shots at McClatchy, however (and willing to put my neck on the line), I would roll the dice and get aggressive. I think that investing in the product — bolstering the editorial side by hiring more editorial employees and embarking on well-developed marketing campaigns — could beget turnarounds in some markets, including Kansas City and St. Louis.
These are tremendous markets, and their respective newspapers represent, by far, the most powerful news-gathering organizations in their respective regions. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t gain ground and sell a lot more subscriptions, particularly digital.
The reality, however, is that the chances of significant, renewed investment by McClatchy are infinitesimal. The only hope for resuscitation is a change of ownership — and not ownership by another chain.
As an example of what can happen, look at The Washington Post. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the paper in 2013, taking it private. At first everyone was wondering what he would do with the paper and if he would take it in some new, crazy direction.
He didn’t. He stuck with what has worked best for newspapers over centuries. This year, he gave the green light to the hiring of more than 100 new employees. The resulting editorial revival and financial stability have catapulted The Post back into national prominence.
(Two recent stories The Post broke were how deeply into the White House the first fence jumper made it and how a security contractor with a gun managed to get an elevator with President Obama during a trip to Atlanta.)
Again, The Post has been able to recapture lost ground through the emergence of a wise and wealthy purchaser who was willing to invest in the product. With McClatchy and Lee, on the other hand, we can expect them to sit on their hands and watch their properties continue to atrophy.
It’s not a happy prospect. But let’s hold out hope that a Midwestern version of Jeff Bezos recognizes what a golden opportunity exists in our community and decides to free The Star from the clutches of its sodden Sacramento owner.
Same for the Post-Dispatch; it’s too good of a property in too good of a market to be stuck in the hands of Lee Enterprises. It, too, needs and deserves rescuing by someone who recognizes value and has the money to pull it off.