Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Pigs Can't Fly


Looking up at the spire of the big, white Philadelphia Inquirer building at 400 North Broad Street, one thing quickly becomes obvious. There are no flying pigs surrounding the place. Pigeons aplenty, but porcine purveyors of the airways? None to be found.

The “flying pigs” campaign being put on by the local newspaper is just that, a put-on, just one more advertising gimmick and one more example of twisting numbers and grasping at straws by a dying entity. In the process of grief that accompanies any such slow, agonizing death, the local newspapers are in the period known as “denial”.

On May 1st, the local newspaper reported that it’s daily circulation had risen, and went about celebrating this accomplishment as if a Democrat had been elected as President of the United States. There were special section in the paper, huge banner headlines, graphs and charts, all celebrating the “impossible news”.

Here is the truth, which you will likely never get from the local newspapers. In 1968, the Inquirer’s daily circulation stood at 648,000 and it’s Sunday circulation at 905,000. This was despite the presence of very real competition from the Evening & Sunday Bulletin, a major newspaper in it’s own right that everyone over the age of 40 remembers well.

The Inky’s Sunday circulation continued to rise slowly, and by 1990 stood at a high of 996,000. Of course the entirety of this rise can be traced to a single huge event: the death of the Bulletin. This longtime competitor of the Inquirer was actually the big boy on the block for a long time. The Evening Bulletin was the top local newspaper, and it’s daily circulation reached the 750,000 level by the mid-1960’s.

Circulation slipped appreciably at all evening newspapers around the country through the 1970’s, and particularly into the 1980’s. Problems included practical ones, such as increased vehicular traffic around cities and towns that made it difficult to deliver the papers in a competitive way (morning papers like the Inquirer, delivered between 1am and 5am, do not face these obstacles). There was also increased competitition in the evenings from 24-hour cable news and the internet.

On January 29th, 1982, the Bulletin published it’s final edition, burying what had once been the nation’s largest afternoon newspaper. Of course, readership was driven to the only option left in town, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The two papers, long owned by the exact same publisher, presented themselves as different, with one coming out in the morning and one later in the day, but that distinction has blurred considerably as the years have passed.

With no major local competition, the Inquirer has continued to lose daily circulation on a steady basis. In 1984, two years after the Bulletin’s death, it was already down over 100,000 from it’s 1968 peak. By 1990, it had dropped another 20,000 in daily circulation, but the Sunday editions were holding steady. That all changed in the 90’s with the explosion of cable news and the internet as mass media.

By the end of the decade, the Inky was down another 100,000 in daily circulation, and even more troubling was that the Sunday circulation had declined by almost 200,000. By 2006, those figures stood at about 330,000 in dailly and 682,000 in Sunday circulation. These figures include “free” papers given away by the paper, paid for by it’s advertisers.

This is no view of the glass as half-empty rather than half-full article, which was yet another version of the Inky’s denial mode pushed into their “Impossible News” section. The Inquirer and Daily News are in deep trouble despite new ownership pouring money into advertising for a year now. Just four months ago, in January 2007, the Inquirer management cut seventy-one editorial staff positions due to revenue losses.

According to a “Rebuilding Media” website article of September 2005, what happened to the Bulletin is now happening at the Inquirer/Daily News. Across the country, newspapers are dying. “In 1930, there were 1.3 newspapers sold (daily) per household…by 1980 it was .77…by 2003 it was under .50”. These are actual home subscription numbers. “The number of newspapers sold per 100 adults follows a similar slope…daily newspaper circulation peaked about 20 years ago at 63 million and has fallen about 13% since then.”

There is some growth in the newspaper industry wordwide, largely attributable to a dramatic increase in the rapidly expanding Asian markets, and somewhat less to the distribution of free newspapers in poorer countries. But at the major daily newspapers in America, the message is clear: your days as the most reliable source of news information are long past. Just as the anchor chair at the evening network news has lost it’s power grip, so have you.

In March of 2005, the Inquirer/Daily News were sold by Knight-Ridder, a major national publisher, to industry rival The McClatchey Group. Just over a year later, almost exactly one year ago, McClatchey cut it’s losses quickly by selling to a group of local investors that include high-power, deep-pockets folks like homebuilder Bruce Toll, advertising executive Brian Tierney, and a number of others. This group has little or no publishing experience at this level.

On the same day that the Philadelphia Inquirer was telling us that it’s circulation was increasing, and that pigs could indeed fly, the Philadelphia Business Journal published the real story behind the story. The newest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation show that in the past six months circulation at the participating newspapers has fallen by 2.1 percent, and Sunday readership has fallen by 3.1 percent.

The Inquirer can rightly celebrate the anomaly of it’s slight circulation rise of 2,000 in six months. Of course, this is following huge losses in ’05 and ’06, and is just a six month figure, not the more important yearly measuring stick. Will the Inquirer show increased circulation for the year? No. The message is clear: Daily newspapers have lost their influence and continue to lose readers.

Oh, and pigs can’t fly.