Will newspapers ever figure it out?

This week’s release of the ABC’s FAS-FAX circulation figures shows newspapers continue to be in a crisis despite “new” initiatives to attract new readers. Aggregate circulation fell by 7 percent this spring, compared to 5 percent during the same period last year.

The numbers say two things:

1. New initiatives introduced last year are not working. That isn’t a surprise, because most of the initiatives aren’t “new,” but retreads on old ideas. For example, the Tribune Company launched major redesigns of the Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel in an attempt to be more “web” like. The results, according to FAS-FAX, has been a 7.5 percent loss in readers for the Tribune and a whopping 9.4 percent loss in circulation for the Sentinel. With a redesign, you expect to alienate older readers with change, and some will drop their subscriptions. But what we’re seeing is that the new look is not attracting new readers to offset that loss. You can put lipstick on a pig, but…

2. Newspapers still haven’t figured out what their readers want. In Denver, the Post had expected to pick up readers of the Rocky Mountain News when that paper folded a couple of months back. The FAS-FAX figures show that at least 75,000 former RMN readers are not picking up the Post. In the 90s, publishers assumed young readers would begin reading newspapers when they settle down. In the early part of the new millennium, publishers assumed people would still be loyal to newspapers even through the Internet was making inroads as a provider of information and communications. We all remember what our parents said if we assume anything…

The results continue to show a lack of foresight by the industry. In my post last year about the Media 2.0 organization, I couldn’t stress enough the need for a research and development department. A team that is analyzing readers’ wants and needs, developing changes and new products to meet them, and keeping an eye on the changing technology and how they can use it to a build and maintain revenues and readership. I have yet to see a major newspaper make that kind of commitment.

In the meantime, however, maybe the publishers should look at the few papers out there that actually saw an increase in circulation. If they are not willing to invest in their own future, maybe they can find out and copy what’s working for these few. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it might be enough to stabilize a company to actually start thinking about the future.

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