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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Biggest Loser: Chron's Circulation Drops More Than Other Major Dailies

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 5:52 PM

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Making fun of the Chronicle isn't as enjoyable as it used to be. Writing some snarky bit about our troubled hometown paper these days is like laughing at a blind guy who walks into a door -- on his way to chemotherapy. It feels like picking on someone less fortunate than yourself. Like writing a review panning a Keanu Reeves performance, it's just too easy.

Now comes more bad news for our journalistically crippled cousins: During the six-month period between April and September, the Chronicle's circulation dropped more than any other major daily in the country. According to Editor & Publisher, the Chron's circ declined 26 percent -- down to a total of 251,782. That's less than half of the paper's circulation back in 2001 when it was more than 530,000.

The spin on the numbers from Chron execs is that this is all part of their business strategy. It may seem strange that losing readership is part of a strategy, but that's their story.

As we reported earlier this year, Chron editor Ward Bushee predicted circulation would drop by "double digits" after newsstand prices and subscription fees were substantially increased. The underlying idea was to limit the costs of distribution and cater to a more select audience willing to pay a premium for home delivery. Chronicle president Mark Adkins told the AP that the paper's remaining subscribers collectively pay the Chron more than its much larger audience did the year before. "The new circulation revenue has become an important part of our business model," Adkins said. "We are pretty pleased." (Adkins told the Business Times that the Chron has actually even made a profit some weeks this year.)

Okay, Mark -- let's not get carried away. Pleased is a strong word. Let's remember that a lot of readers have gone away because the Chron is asking them to pay substantially more for less (weekly delivery rates have gone up from $4.75 to $7.75 since last year). The paper is smaller, the news staff is smaller, and the investigative unit has been dismantled. Carl Hall, a representative for the Chron's newsroom employees' union, says the new figures reflect "a regrettable ... permanent loss of the Chronicle's central role in the Bay Area and the community. People aren't taking the papers."

Hall says that in addition to the paper's business plan, the bad economy likely contributed to the circulation losses.

Hall, by the way, played a role in getting billionaire Warren Hellman's nonprofit news outlet off the ground. While Hellman's Bay Area News Project has been heralded as an innovative solution to the industry's problems, nonprofit news models are nothing new. Why, the Chronicle has been running a nonprofit operation for the past decade.

Did I just make that joke? Jeez, I feel dirty.

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