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October 31, 2009

Circulation Plummeting at Vermont's Daily Newspapers

Here's a headline no newspaper publisher wants to read:

Newspaper Circulation Dropping Like a Bomb; Biggest Six-Month Decline on Record

DSC04429 But that's what is happening at daily newspapers across the country and right here in Vermont. Nationally, circulation went down 10.8 percent between April and October, the biggest drop on record, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Vermont papers, in some cases, fared even worse — a decline of 14 percent in the worst instance. Newsrooms already battered by years of declining print readership face the prospect of more cuts as dailies watch the steady erosion of their subscriber base and single-copy sales.

The Burlington Free Press, Vermont's largest newspaper, sustained the worst hit. Weekday circulation dropped 14 percent during the six-month window, to 33,489 copies. Sunday circulation declined 9.7 percent, to 42,180.

Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson was apparently out of town on business this week, and did not reply to an email from Blurt seeking comment on the paper's circulation figures.

Around the state, the news was just as bleak.

  • The family-owned Montpelier/Barre Times-Argus saw a drop of 10.2 percent weekday, 8 percent Sunday
  • The Rutland Herald (same publisher as the Times-Argus) dropped 12.5 percent weekday, 8.2 percent Sunday.
  • The Brattleboro Reformer declined 10.7 percent weekday, 9.9 percent weekday.

Of the six Vermont papers that report their circulation to the Audit Bureau, the Bennington Banner posted the best numbers for weekday circulation: down 6 percent, from 6,390 to 5,952.

John Mitchell, publisher of the Times-Argus and Rutland Herald, says the numbers are "clearly disappointing." Mitchell's papers raised newsstand prices last February, from 75 cents to $1, and he suspects that contributed to the drop in sales.

"But we think that more people than ever are reading our newspapers," says Mitchell. The papers' web sites get 4 million hits a month, Mitchell says, they just can't make much money off that. Mitchell says the papers are still profitable, but "not by much."

The papers have reduced their staffs significantly over the  last three years, but the publisher says additional cuts aren't in the papers' immediate future.

Professor David Mindich, who chairs the  Journalism Department at St. Michael's College, says he'd be extremely surprised if most papers could avoid layoffs. "If you're seeing 10 percent average circulation decline, and even higher in some cases in Vermont, you're going to see layoffs, there's just no way around that," Mindich says.

"The most important question we as citizens can ask is, What is this going to do to our democracy? As important as blogging is, we need to pay people on a full-time basis to pay attention to government."The publisher's reports submitted to the Audit Bureau do not count online readership or give numbers for total audience, a key metric publishers use to  measure their products' reach.

(Full disclosure: Seven Days is a free newspaper and is audited yearly by Verified Audit. Seven Days increased its weekly circulation from 33,000 to 34,000 this past June in response to lower rates of papers coming back unread as "returns," according to Circulation Manager Steve Hadeka.)

Update: Incorrect 2003 Free Press circulation figures removed.

I stopped reading the daily Freep sometime in 2005. Scanning the front page on the web was enough. The Sunday Freep? We rarely buy it. We get the weekly grocery flyers before the weekend in the free stuff in our mailbox.

There is just nothing compelling about the Freep anymore. I pick up a copy when I have a doctor's appointment, but I'm through with it in about 10 minutes, tops. It is just not "compelling" any more.

While I can say that I only read the Freeps online and usually that is just to skim or read about high school sports, I have enjoyed watching their live coverage of press conferences from City Hall. Maybe this is a service they can continue to offer and expand in the future. Or maybe 7 days can partner with PEG access and out perform the Freeps once again.

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