I’m kind of surprised by MediaNews Group vice president of research Matt Baldwin’s recent letter to Romenesko wondering why newspapers beat themselves up over circulation reports?

I certainly agree with Baldwin that as the reading public’s habits have changed, so to do should the way the print media measures itself.

But, to answer Baldwin’s question, newspapers beat themselves up over declining circulation because that’s how they measured their success in the past and it’s the foundation for which its key revenue streams are based. Until that culture is changed, the teeth-gnashing and self-flagellation will continue.

Circulation figures go back to the days when manufacturing was king in America. Each newspaper copy was, in business terms, a widget. The more widgets you make, then it stands to reason that the more readers you have. Therefore, display ad rates (and in come cases, classified, too) are calculated on the measure of how many papers you produce (although those in the business know that newspaper ads were sold more like used cars, and depending on the ad rep, you could almost cut any deal you want).

Newspaper execs see a direct correlation between declining circulation figures and their ability to charge as much as they do on ad rates. Falling circulation equals cheaper ads. Cheaper ads plus declining advertisers (plus the inclusion of less-expensive forms of advertising, such as ad inserts) equal less profit. Less profit equals cutbacks in staff and content. It becomes what is shaping up to be a death spiral.

Now, Baldwin notes figures from Scarborough Research, which does provide more depth in readership trends and marketing potential. And there is validity to moving measurement standards to another form. The Chicago Sun-Times tried that tactic several years ago using Scarborough figures that noted a copy of the S-T was read 2.5 times a day. They billed themselves as “Chicago’s best-read newspaper” and quoted a readership of well over 1 million. Unfortunately, the advertisers, public and competition in general didn’t buy that argument.

Baldwin brings up a good point; maybe it’s time to change how we measure our readership and, in turn, set the standards for which print newspapers charge for advertising. But this will have to be a unified effort of the industry, which has shown little unity in new ideas during the past .. oh … 100 years or so.

As long as the “circulation=ad rates=profitability” culture remains the accepted standard, not much else will change.

Yesterday’s announcement that the Christian Science Monitor would eliminate its daily print edition in favor of a primarily web-based outfit was met with a shiver from many in the industry. But while the demise of the daily print edition (a weekend edition will still be printed) is a cause for pause, CSM’s transition to web-only could provide some insight on how the industry as a whole can make the switch.

I stress SOME insight. While CSM is considered a newspaper, there are many parts of its business model that made it different from a traditional daily newspaper. And, from the initial readings, those factors are the catalyst for the transition.

For example, CSM is a national daily that is delivered via mail. As a result, its content was less focused on event news and more on analytical and enterprise pieces. In effect, the stories were more like a news magazine such as Time or Newsweek.

As a result, the readership was more niche than general interest. Although national, it’s circulation never far above the 200,000 average it enjoyed in its heyday. A far, far cry from Wall Street Journal or USA Today. More recent numbers have it at around 50,000, which makes it an even more expensive product to produce on a regular basis, given the resources and delivery methods it incorporates.

Unless significant changes are made to the vision and mission of CSM, I could see its web presence becoming less of an electronic newspaper and more of an analytical e-zine — much like a Slate without the punditry. With its continued financial and moral support from the Church of Christ, Scientist, CSM online could easily weather early revenue losses to develop a voice and audience over time.

I certainly hope a journalism think-tank such as API or Poynter watches closely — or even documents — what CSM does to make the transition. There will certainly be opportunities and mistakes taken along the way, and some of the lessons learned could provide valuable for other organizations looking to develop a web-print synergy — or make a similar transition to web-only.

There will be lessons learns and valuable advice. What there won’t be is a “one-size-fits-all” solution for newspapers.

It frustrates me to no end to see newspapers try to be “innovative” by relying on old, outdated methods and measures.

Currently, I’ve seen two news organizations try to improve their offerings by polling their readers. Reader surveys are not new, and frankly worked quite well in the past when the paper needed tweaking or freshening up. But, in today’s world, there is a basic flaw with reader surveys: You’re asking people who are already paying for your product. They, in turn, will most likely tell you they like what they’re getting, with maybe a suggestion or two that would improve their experience.

While the concept is right … finding out what customers want … they are going after the wrong crowd. Yes, it’s nice that you are finding out what people who get your newspaper want. But there is a much bigger crowd out there who are not taking your newspaper. Why is that? Isn’t that who you want to tap into right now?

Instead of reader polls, try other sources. One area to look at is online. You have a number of subscribers online who probably comment on news stories. While you probably included a line in your terms of service that their private information would not be sold to third-party vendors, there is certainly nothing wrong with using them to find out if A) they also get your print product and B) if not, why?

I’d also add a C) if you were putting together a news product that met your needs, what would you include and in what form would you use it? Maybe add a D) if you knew of such a product, would you pay for it, and if so, how much?

How many news organizations have asked those questions to non-readers and online readers? My guess is not many. But, as someone with a vested interest in this industry, that is information that would be worth millions in determining what products to create in the future.

American Press Institute has done a wonderful job setting up this basis in its “Newspaper Next” project, under the catchphrase of “Jobs to be Done.” Newspapers need to realize that, in order to gain new readers, they need to talk to those who aren’t customers in order to find ways to get to them.

Don’t neglect your loyal readers … that’s what customer service is for. But they are not going to carry you through the current crisis. News orgs need new customers, and they need to provide exactly what those new customers want.

The only real way to find out is to ask them.

* OK…my ego’s back to normal today. Found out earlier this week that Tribune Co. president Randy Michaels circulated my assessment of TribCo.’s chicagobreakingnews.com to company execs. Although prefacing “don’t start paying attention to blogs,” he used mine to tout the new site as a hit and that future products should have a similar focus.

Nice to know this lowly scribe can be such an big influence. Wished my wife was as easily swayed.

* More good things … I love blogger Chris O’Brien’s recent entry on ten little things newspapers can do now to reinvent the newsroom.

The beauty of O’Brien’s suggestions is that they are small, cheap and not too labor intensive. But more importantly, they create portals by which folks in the newsroom can interact with their readers. This can break down walls that keep reporters and editors from knowing what their readers are interested in, as well as keep an eye on the community’s pulse and be more flexible in changing directions if the need warrants it.

The problem with newsroom reinvention is that too many of them are focused on trying to do major overhauls, when tweaking would better serve the cause.

I’d bet if a newsroom just enacted one or two of O’Brien’s suggestions, it’d improve staff morale and confidence much more than a total overhaul of the operation. And, frankly, that’d go a long way in retaining newsroom talent … something that we as an industry need to be very, very worried about right now.

I hate to start sounding like a shill for the Tribune Company, but I’ve got to admit that they finally have a product that “gets it” in growing and retaining new readership online.

It’s chicagobreakingnews.com. Powered by the Chicago Tribune and its other media roles (WGN TV and radio and the cable CLTV), its an aggragator of breaking news in the Chicago region. The more I’ve been following it, the more I like it.

What makes it work is simple … and it’s what I’ve been espousing since the start of this blog:

1. It uses its own content (compiled from its various TribCo web sites) to highlight the breaking news it does best.

2. What content it can’t provide is gathered from its print and broadcast competitors. Note the right-side rail with headlines from all the competing Chicago TV stations, Suburban newspapers, and it’s main competitor, the Chicago Sun-Times.

3. It’s all packaged in an easily navigable home page.

4. And most importantly, from the looks of it, it’s very labor-UNintensive.

I would expect that, as more people discover it, it will gain popularity as the place to go for breaking news in Chicago…maybe even more so than the Tribune Web site. And as more eyes come to chicagobreakingnews, the more valuable it will become for advertisers.

Plus … if TribCo execs are savvy enough … it could become even more of a revenue tool by providing direct delivery and or e-blasts to customers for a modest fee.

And, I would expect as the competitors study their readership numbers, they see more eyes coming to the story from chicagobreakingnews.com, but then going back when they’re through.

At its core, it goes to what is becoming new reader loyalty. It doesn’t matter where the content originates. Readers will be loyal to the one who delvers the news in a format and timetable that meets their lifestyle needs.

Don’t know if this is one of Lee Abram’s brain children, but if it is, maybe there is some substance behind his Col. Kurtz memos.

Hope you like the new look. I decided to change the blog format after realizing that I had the same format as Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog. And that was a bit too curmudgeonly for my tastes.

Speaking of new looks, gotta give Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes props for his honest assessment of the newly designed Tribune. Like Steve, I also tried to hate it, but just couldn’t (well, except for the “mall map” on top of select pages telling you where you are).

As I’ve said before, it’s a bold step for the Tribune at a time when too many papers are being less than bold. Sure they’ll lose traditional readers … like Mr. Mutter and his friends … but if they can pick up the maturing RedEye readers, then the gamble will surely pay off.