By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The numbers behind the numbers

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!

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14 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Oversimplification doesn’t even begin to describe it. This column is baseless.The 4.1 million uniques means 4.1 million different people came to the site at least once in the month. But if you return 30 times (once daily) you still only count as one.You could argue that would increase Globe readership, but some number of those uniques came just once and never returned, someone in Des Moines looking for Boston driving directions who inadvertantly clicked on boston.com.There are about 4.1 million different ways to break down those numbers. It requires thoughtful analysis and more data.Dan Kennedy’s way is the most ridiculous imagineable and adds zero insight. I suggest he try harder before posting this stuff.

  2. prof_matson

    Hi Dan – this is one of the reasons why I’m a big supporter of the merger of the online and print divisions at newspapers. The future readers of print are online. Right now, boston.com is physically and legally isolated from the print newsroom – bringing the two together is the way to go. (The same goes at the Herald – their online division is out in Needham. NOTE: I used to work for them when the division was isolated downstairs in a room next to the presses at One Herald Square). I think you are already seeing success with this strategy at the New York Times with some of the multi-media packages they are now producing. The more print reporters become involved with the content delivered online – the better that content is going to be. And the more readers that is going to attract. Why keep these two mediums so seperate? Okay, that’s my two cents. – Liz

  3. Dan Kennedy

    As Anonymous (what a cool name!) points out, and as I conceded in advance, there are flaws in my back-of-the-envelope calculations. But there’s little doubt that an average of 136,000 people a day are visiting Boston.com, and that this goes quite a way toward explaining why the Boston Globe’s circulation has dropped so rapidly.The fact that Boston.com has 600,000 registered users tends to bolster that theory. Even if 80 percent of them also subscribe to the Globe in print, that leaves 120,000 registered users who only read the Globe online.The Des Moines scenario mentioned by Anonymous illustrates not so much that I’m wrong as it does that counting online is a lot different from counting in print. I might not look at the print edition for five days in a row. Maybe I’ve been too busy, so at the end of the week I stack them up in the recycling pile, unopened. No advertiser is ever the wiser.Online, of course, it’s possible to track precisely what people looked at, how long they spent looking at it, etc. Which has a lot to do with why the business model isn’t working.

  4. Anonymous

    Uh, there’s some interesting stuff here, but you might want to recalculate with the correct Herald circ numbers. Haven’t you switched weekday and Sunday figures? According to your post, it looks like the Herald has lost a whopping 100,000 readers on weekdays and gained enough Sunday readers to actually make the Globe a little nervous:”That would put the Herald’s current circulation at about 145,000 on weekdays and 240,000 on Sundays.” — Dan KennedyI don’t think that’s the case, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

  5. TC

    Combining print circulation with online hits may be a rough methodology, but it does give a better sense of a publication’s true readership. My household used to receive the Globe, Herald, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Now we read all of them on the Internet (except for the WSJ, which charges.) I rarely buy a newspaper, unless I am out of town. DSL costs much less than all those subscriptions. If there is a big story, or I am just wasting time, I may hit the Washington Post and LA Times websites as well, or follow the recommendations of sites like this for particular stories. In a sense it is a return to the pre-television era, when many homes read more than one newspaper.

  6. Rick in Duxbury

    Unaddressed is quality of content vs. quantity. Everyone is so quantitative about how many eyeballs are captured they are ignoring the dreck that passes for content. (E.g.,Today’s liveshot on Boston.com from the Globe newsroom featured a young lady opining on Brian McGrory’s mayoral-race lunch at “Locke Obair”, [twice!])These dolts don’t know what it is they don’t know….

  7. Anonymous

    So Dan, how many people reading online are actually paying any money to read the Globe’s content? I’m not, nor does anyone I know.

  8. Kevin

    Dan, what do you make of this quote from Morgan Stanley’s Douglas Arthur from the Times’ story today?{“The Boston Globe is just struggling mightily,” said Mr. Arthur, the analyst. “It’s a function of the Boston economy; it’s a function of the mergers of advertisers like Bank of America and Fleet.”}Seems like he’s saying the Globe would be suffering anyway because it comes from the land of Gillette and Fleet.

  9. mike_b1

    Couple of thoughts.1. “Al Larkin, a Globe spokesman, said about half of its six-month circulation drop is due to a decision to eliminate bulk giveaways to hotels and other sponsored deliveries.” Perhaps. But once a month I get a call offering me a 7-day Globe subscription for the same that I pay for just Sundays. For myriad reasons, I always turn them down, but I’m sure many folks take them up on it.2. We really need to know what the longer trend is for circ drops to determine whether, as DK writes, “Readers, though, aren’t leaving.” There just aren’t enough data here to make that call.

  10. Anonymous

    Here’s my Globe circulation adventure (and I’ll stay anonymous for this one…no need to kill off a good thing!)About 5 years ago I went on a long vacation and cancelled the Globe tfn. I had been paying the going rate. Soon after I got back, they offered me a half-price deal, which I took for 13 weeks. But instead of rolling over to the full price, I called them to propose cancelling the Sunday paper. Instead they offered me another 13 weeks at half price.Guess what. They’ve been extending my subscription at half price ever since. The only difference is now they give me 6 months at a time instead of 3. However, the Globe has jacked up the “regular” price so much that this is less of a bargain. If you don’t play this game, you’ll be paying a 50% premium for home delivery – 75 cents a day and $3.50 for Sundays. Or, you can save money by buying it from the corner store – when you happen to be near the corner store, of course. What a weird business model! The Globe rips off its most loyal, passive customers and encourages its readers to convert to unreliable single-copy readers.

  11. Vin Crosbie

    Anonymous is correct in pointing out this fallacy: “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.”Almost all surveys of printed newspaper readership (the most recent was by the Readership Institute at Northwestern University) indicate that the average reader of a metropolitan daily newspaper (such as the Globe) reads it 3 to 5 times per WEEK, spending about a half hour each time and scan through all daily pages.By comparison, almost all surveys and meterings of newspaper website usage (including by Nielsen/Netratings and its archrival ComScore Media Metrix) indicate that the average user of a metropolitan daily newspaper’s website (specifically including the Boston.com) uses that site 3 to 5 times per MONTH, spending about a half hour in aggregate there all month and seeing less than 30 webpages during that time.Since there are 4 and 1/3rd weeks in a month, this means the average readers of the printed edition and the web editions aren’t equivalent. Each print edition reader is grossly worth 1:4.33 online readers. Then factor in the difference between the print edition reader reading all pages (40 to 60) daily versus the online reader reading less than 30 pages all month and the differences in their time spent reading, and you’ll realize that there are magnitudes of difference between these two types of readers.It gets even worse: A 2003 survey by of 245 U.S. newspaper websites showed that their average annual revenue measured per user was $7.93 (the revenues for the New York Times Company, which includes Boston.com, was $7.56). Compare that the average annual revenue measured per users of a printed edition. Take the printed Globe’s annual advertising revenues divided by its 460,000 readers and then add the discounted annual subscription rate ($400). You’ll come up with an annual figure between $500 and $800 per reader. Again, magnitudes higher than the online.So, unless newspaper publishers can create compelling enough website that get used, and earn, at least as much as their printed editions of declining circulation do, then there’s no good news that more people are reading the newspaper online than in print.

  12. mike_b1

    Vin, while the data you quote may be accurate, they obscure the financial picture. The profit margins for revenue-generating Websites are fantastic, certainly much better than print. Raw material costs are lower, equiment costs are lower, yields are 100%, there’s no overages/spoilage, and there’s far less labor and no unions to deal with.

  13. Vin Crosbie

    Why let accurate data obscure the financial picture, eh?Yes, the PROFIT MARGINS for revenue-generating websites are much better than print, and the websites have LOWER costs of equipment and labor.But if a newspaper website earns a 100 percent profit margin on $2 million in revenues, will that $1 million in profit compensate for $20 million drop in profits from a printed edition that earns ONLY a 20 percent profit margin? Whoopee! Happy day! We’ve increased our profit margin five-fold, meanwhile suffering a consolidated loss of $19 million.No. Invoices, employees, and stockholders are paid with dollars of revenues;; not with percentages of profit margin. That’s the true picture

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