Romenesko today has a whole section of stories on the Boston Globe’s circulation and advertising woes, including this Jay Fitzgerald piece in the Boston Herald, headlined “Bored Readers Cutting Off Globe’s Circulation.” Fitzgerald focuses on the Globe’s plummeting circulation – down nearly 8 percent, to about 416,000 on weekdays and 667,000 on Sundays.
But though these are certainly dark days at 135 Morrissey Blvd., especially with the national operation being dismantled, there’s a larger point that everyone is missing.
Take a look at the media kit for the Globe’s Web site, Boston.com. As you’ll see, Boston.com claims to have 600,000 registered users. Moreover, it cites a third-party study showing that Boston.com is visited by more than 4.1 million unique users every month.
Now, those 4.1 million people aren’t all Globe readers. Boston.com includes features not just from the Globe but also from New England Cable News and New England Sports Network, as well as some of its own content. But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that Boston.com and the Globe are one and the same. Divide those 4.1 million monthly users by 30 days in a month (another oversimplification), and you’ve got an average of about 136,000 people reading the Globe online every day.
Add those readers to the Globe’s current circulation, and you get 552,000 on weekdays and 803,000 on Sundays. Significantly, those numbers are similar to the Globe’s best years pre-Web. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), the Globe’s weekday circulation in 1991 was 519,000. Its Sunday circulation in 1994 was 815,000.
Of course, the Herald has had its own circulation woes in recent years. Fitzgerald reports that the Herald’s circulation has dropped by about 4 percent during the past six months. That would put the Herald’s current circulation at about 240,000 on weekdays and 145,000 on Sundays.
Now, let’s do the same exercise. Herald Interactive claims that its Web sites receive about 3 million unique visitors every month. As I did with Boston.com and the Globe, I’m going to award every one of those visitors to the Herald, even though Herald Interactive includes Town Online, the electronic wing of its Community Newspaper subsidiary, as well as three classified-ad sites.
Divide 3 million by 30, and you get 100,000. Add those to the current circulation numbers, and you get 340,000 readers on weekdays and 245,000 on Sundays. That compares favorably to ABC figures for 1989, which show that the Herald’s circulation was 360,000 on weekdays and 252,000 on Sundays.
No one doubts that the newspaper business is in serious trouble. The Herald eliminated a quarter of its 145 newsroom employees earlier this year, and the Globe is in the midst of cutting about 35 newsroom positions. The Globe’s decision to get rid of its national desk is stunning, because it represents a serious lowering of the paper’s reach and ambition, and because it will make it harder to attract talented young reporters.
But there is a case to be made that the Globe’s readership – and, for that matter, the Herald’s – is pretty much unchanged over the past 12 to 15 years. Changes in advertising patterns and an inability to come up with a viable online business model are taking a huge toll. Readers, though, aren’t leaving. That’s a reason for optimism.
Correction: In the original version of this post, I transposed the Herald’s weekday and Sunday circulation figures. The numbers are now correct. D’oh!