Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mutter-ing about circulation

Alan Mutter, the Newsosaur, puts a hopeful face, or at least less of a frowning one, on the latest newspaper circulation slip-and-slide. Mutter takes up where I left off a year ago, suggesting that at least part of the drop comes as newspapers target their circulation better and thus, hopefully, become more valuable to their advertisers.

Well, yes, to a point. But as noted in my earlier post, this is nothing new. Large parts of the newspaper business shed large parts of their outlying circulation, or their low-income circulation, in the 1990s. Columbia Journalism Review did a major story on the trend. Those were the days when papers like the Des Moines Register or the Providence Journal prided themselves on being the "state" paper with not only circulation, but bureaus, reporters or regular freelancers in those far-flung places.

The same argument was made then: This circulation costs too much to serve, we need to pull in to better target, etc.

There comes a point where the only part of the target that's left is the bull's eye, and you're in the middle of it with someone else taking aim.

I think Mutter is still more right than wrong -- for now -- and his logic holds even given the industry's so far plaintive attempts to get advertisers to consider readership along with, or instead of, circulation. If you can convince advertisers that not only is your circulation elite -- but that the folks those folks are passing the paper on to are of the same ilk -- so much the better.

Again, I go back to a prediction I've made -- and that is hardly unique to me: The industy evolves to the point of small, expensive print publications and most of the "mass" news on the Web somehow. Then, as we evolve toward paid content online will come issues such as whether a certain amount of "base" information should be free for every person -- sort of like a public utility of information (perhaps presented as a social utility necessary in a functioning democratic society). If we are smart, we start getting ready for those conversations now before some folks in Congress and on Pennsylvania Avenue decide it for us.



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