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October 28, 2010

Vermont Newspaper Circulation Still Dropping, But More Slowly

DSC04419 U.S. daily newspaper circulation fell 5 percent in the last six months, according to audit figures just released — and that's good compared to the freefall dailies have experienced over the last few years.

So, how are Vermont's dailies faring? Better than the national average in most cases, and notably worse in a couple others.

According to semiannual figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press, the state's largest daily, actually boosted its Sunday circulation by 1.1 percent — from 42,180 copies to 42,679. For the same period last year, the Freeps sustained a 9.7 percent plunge in Sunday circ.

The paper's Monday-Saturday circulation was down by 3.1 percent over the same period last year. As of September 30, average weekday circulation is 32,450 and average Sunday circ is 42,679.

The audit bureau tracks circulation figures over six-month periods — from October through March and April through September. Newspapers use those figures to determine their advertising rates.

In recent months, the Freeps has been offering some cut-rate deals on home delivery. One Seven Days staffer signed up for the incredible deal of Thursday and Sunday editions, home delivery for a year, for $2. Not $2 a month — a one-time payment of $2 for the whole year.

"There have been some unusual deals to sign up new subscribers," observes David Mindich, chair of the journalism department at St. Michael's College and a former assignment editor for CNN. "It will be interesting to see if these people will resubscribe."

Elsewhere, the family-owned Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald newspapers saw the biggest circulation drops. The Herald lost 8.6 percent weekday, 5.3 percent Sunday. The Times Argus dropped 5.2 percent weekday, and 6.3 percent Sunday. Both newspapers put their online editions behind a paywall earlier this month. Newspapers don't report online readership to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"I wish them well, but I'm not optimistic that it will be successful," Mindich says of the papers' paywall plan. "Some financial papers, like the Wall Street Journal, have had some success with this. But even the New York Times, whose readership is very loyal, wasn't able to charge a few years ago."

The saving grace for the Times Argus and Herald, Mindich says, might be that both papers have a near monopoly on central Vermont news. "Anytime you have a monopoly on news, you can start charging for it," says Mindich.

The MediaNews Group-owned Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner reported mixed news on the circulation front. The Reformer's weekend edition dropped 0.5 percent, but its Monday-Friday paper went up by a fraction, 0.1 percent. The Banner lost 1.9 percent on its Saturday edition and 4.2 percent on its weekday edition.

The Caledonian-Record again sustained a big hit, its circulation sinking 6.9 percent in the last six months.

(Disclosure: Seven Days is a free newspaper and is audited yearly by Verified Audit. Seven Days increased its weekly circulation from 34,000 to 35,000 copies this past week due to greater demand at the paper's drop sites, including more racks at Burlington International Airport.)

You should do a story on web traffic, as that is an important part of the big picture. Quantcast says BFP = up 28% year over year, = down 50% over the same period.

Jimmy, we don't use Quantcast tracking code on (nor, for that matter, does the Burlington Free Press), so their data for our site is pure guesswork. That's why they include a disclaimer that says "Site not quantified. Data is estimated. Note: Due to a small data sample, estimates are rough." right above their graph for

We use Google Analytics to track visits. And going by Google's numbers, well, Quantcast isn't even close to accurate.

Interesting, then, that's "rough guess" is VERY similar to quantcast's.

I'm not sure if your protestation means that you have no interest in completing your story by discussing web traffic, or just that you assumed I didn't read Quantcast's disclaimer, which applies to both parties' estimates.

I just came upon this article by Peter Bromberg about the inherent inaccuracies of several free "web traffic tracking" sites:

Someone more technologically adept than me could also explain how the 7Days website is actually made up of several "sites" hosted at various locations/servers, etc. which makes web tracking by third party sites even more difficult.

Joel Spolsky says Quantcast provides pretty accurate estimates across his properties, and he has a lot of them.

Anyway the point would be moot if you just talked about what your web numbers actually are relative to BFP's. I'm sure they'd tell you. It's an important addendum to the story above, which is one that 7D seems to write about once every couple of months. Why not tell the whole story?

Okay, Jimmy. You wore me down, buddy. I'll see what reliable, verifiable information we can dig up about web traffic. I assure you there is no conspiracy to cover up information that would reflect poorly on 7D.

As the above comments show, it's simply not as established and reliable as tracking print circulation. Plus, let's face it: print circulation, to use Shummy's words, is where the money is. I know it doesn't capture "total audience" but print circ is far more consequential to a news outlet's revenues than web traffic is.

By the way, 7D does not write this story "every couple of months." We write it every six months, when the circ figures are released. It's an important story given the state of our industry.

I'm sure Quantcast (and would be more accurate for if we had their code on our site, or if they had access to our web server logs. But this isn't the case. I don't know how they get their estimated data., for one, has been said to get estimates via software secretly installed along with browser toolbar add-ons. ( The tracking site Alexa gets its estimates through a toolbar, as well. But since not many people use browser toolbars (not ones that send your browsing habits to companies, anyway) this isn't really a very accurate metric.

We use industry standard Google Analytics to track web traffic. Google Analytics works by installing a few lines of code into the code of each page on our site. That allows GA to track each hit on a given page. It's actually tracking hit-by-hit, not estimating.

Google Analytics tells us that we've had over 83,000 visitors in the past month -- that's about 15,000 more than a year ago. The curve isn't a wild roller-coaster, but a straight-ish line with a few bends up and down. Kinda like a walking stick you might pick up on a hike.

Google Analytics can also give us all kinds of other data about our web traffic, too, but I think that's enough navelgazing for now.

"it's simply not as established and reliable as tracking print circulation."

It's actually reliable right down to the individual page view. If you don't know how to do that, that's a separate issue.

"print circulation, to use Shummy's words, is where the money is."

Not for everybody. How many newspapers did the Huffington Post sell last year? There's a reason newspapers devote money and resources to their web properties, with steady annual increases in many cases.

"It's an important story given the state of our industry."

Indeed it is, which is why I thought it was important that you not leave half of it out.

BTW you've got Quantcast javascript in all of your pages, so if their data isn't reliable then you've configured it incorrectly.

Was my blog post about Huffington Post? Of course not. It was about six Vermont daily newspapers that report figures to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. For these papers, print is where the money is. That was my point. Newspapers, largely, still haven't figured out how to make much money off of web traffic — at least compared to print. That's why over the last few years, we saw major news organizations shedding reporters, editors, photographers and designers, even as their web traffic (read: their total audience) was going up and up. If you followed the link to my first post about this last October, you would have found John Mitchell, publisher of the Times Argus, speaking to that. The T-A's total audience was going up as web traffic rose. But how many fired reporters has that allowed them to hire back?

And Jimmy, since I know you'll ask -- Yes, on Monday, I will call the publishers of these papers and ask them to voluntarily report to us their online readership. That is certainly the best way to get these numbers. Though I'm not sure those are subject to verified audits like the print circulations are under the Audit Bureau of Circulations -- so we'd be taking them at their word, I suppose. If you know of an audit service that verifies web traffic for each site, let me know, I'd be happy to use it. Or better yet, just post the results yourself.

"Was my blog post about Huffington Post?"

No, I assumed that your "money" comment was about the newspaper industry in general, and if you've just decided that the changing of the guard doesn't apply here then I think you're in for a nasty surprise in the coming years. Personally, I haven't picked up a print copy of 7 Days in three years, although I read it online almost every week. But maybe I'm just an aberration.

There actually are newspapers, all outside of Vermont I guess, whose web properties are contributing a rapidly increasing percentage of their revenues. Unless your premise is that there's something unique to Vermont that will keep the same thing from ever happening here, I'm not sure how that's not relevant.

"since I know you'll ask"

You seem to think I care deeply about how you're doing versus the BFP. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just finished reading what I considered a half-written story, in its fourth or fifth incarnation over the years, and thought it was time someone pointed out that it was half-written. I'll admit that I find it annoying that you guys seem to have such a hardon for the BFP, hence my 28% up vs. 50% down comment, but that's a minor quibble.

You may find this hard to believe but I wish you both well. I'm mildly saddened when the BFP lays people off, as I am when one of your editors writes a blog post about having to go on food stamps. It's better for everyone when the entities who report the news in any form do well, so that they can pay their people well, and attract a higher caliber of writer, giving me better stuff to read.

I know everything! Bow before the awesome power of my speculation and intellect!

BTW, you might not believe this, but I find myself insufferable.

Sorry if I hurt your brain, Fake Jimmy.

Fake Jimmy really can't handle intellectual discourse.

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