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.

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