A few thoughts on the Globe’s digital rate hike

CommonWealth Magazine editor Bruce Mohl reports that The Boston Globe is about to increase its digital-only subscription rate by 74 percent — from $3.99 to $6.93 a week, or about $1 a day.

As I told Bruce for a follow-up, it’s a bold move — maybe too bold. The Globe has had a lot of success with paid digital subscriptions, having sold around 78,000 of them as of last September, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The AAM does a lot of double- and even triple-counting of digital (the Globe itself claims a more modest 65,000, according to Mohl’s article), but that’s still an impressive number.

I’m sure some subscribers will walk away rather than pay the higher fee, but probably not too many. If you’re paying to read the Globe, it’s most likely because you are a committed Globe reader of long standing. To invoke the old cliché, $1 is considerably less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Still, some will cancel:

Newspaper companies charge for content at their peril. News executives may chafe at giving away their journalism, but members of their audience don’t feel like they’re getting anything for free — not after paying hundreds of dollars a month for broadband, cell service and their various digital devices.

Interestingly, while the Globe itself is becoming more expensive, John Henry and company are also making some big bets on free with sites like Crux, BetaBoston, Boston.com and the forthcoming life-sciences vertical, which will be called Stat according to several employment listings I’ve seen.

I wish the Globe success as its executives try to figure out how to pay for journalism in the 21st century. But at this point I think it would be wiser to focus on building their subscriber base than trying to squeeze more out of their existing customers.

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Kushner’s latest cuts raise serious doubts about his strategy

Aaron Kushner
Aaron Kushner

Published earlier at The Huffington Post.

If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.

Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.

Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.

Is it time to push the panic button? The estimable Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, says yes, arguing that the latest round of cuts raise “new questions about its very viability in the year ahead.” Doctor may be right. But as I wrote at The Huffington Post earlier this year, I hope Doctor is wrong, given the promise of Kushner’s early moves.

In 2013 Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, were the toast of the newspaper industry. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum hailed their print-centric approach and hypothesized that being able to scoop up the Register debt-free might enable them to succeed where others — including Tribune Co. and the Journal Register Co. — had failed. “Kushner,” Chittum wrote, “had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy — after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases.”

Spitz, in a cocksure interview last October with Lauren Indvik of Mashable, mocked his competitors for giving their journalism away online, insisting that he and Kushner had a better idea.

“The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free,” Spitz told Indvik, adding: “I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value.”

Unfortunately for Spitz and Kushner, there are few signs that their strategy of pumping up their print editions (even improving the paper stock) while walling off their digital content behind relatively inflexible paywalls has paid off.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, paid circulation at the Orange County Register for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2011, before Kushner and Spitz took charge, averaged 283,997 on Sundays and 172,942 Monday through Saturday. The sale took place in July 2012. That September, paid circulation actually rose, to 301,576 on Sundays and 175,851 the rest of the week. But in September 2013 it dropped below pre-Kushner levels, to 274,737 on Sundays and 162,894 the other six days. (I am excluding what AAM refers to as “branded editions” — mainly regional weeklies published by the Register. The numbers combine print and paid digital circulation, which, in the case of the Register, is negligible.)

Kushner is a Boston-area native who made his money in the greeting-card business. Before his move to Southern California, he tried to buy The Boston Globe and, later, nearly closed a deal to purchase the Portland Press Herald of Maine. So it’s interesting to note that Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who eventually won the sweepstakes for the Globe, has taken a very different approach from Kushner, sinking money into an online-only vertical covering innovation and technology as well as repositioning the paper’s venerable free Boston.com site as a “younger, voicier, edgier” complement to the Globe. Soon the Globe is expected to unveil an ambitious website covering the Catholic Church in the hopes of attracting a national and international audience.

Perhaps the most important difference between Henry and Kushner, though, is the depth of their pockets. There are limits to Kushner’s wealth, and those limits are becoming apparent as he attempts to make his newspaper mini-empire profitable. Henry, a billionaire investor, can afford to take the long view. In that respect, he is more like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who announced that he would buy the Washington Post just days after Henry said he would acquire the Globe.

Ryan Chittum, in his CJR piece, called Kushner’s approach “the most interesting — and important — experiment in journalism right now.” It would be easy and facile to make too much of Kushner’s woes. He may simply have gotten ahead of himself, and is now buying the time he needs to make sense of what he is building. Then again, if Ken Doctor is right, the end of this particular newspaper story may be in sight.

More on those inflated digital circulation numbers

Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal takes on a subject that I tackled recently: trying to make sense of The Boston Globe’s paid circulation figures at a time when no one seems to know how to count print and digital sales.

As Chesto and a number of us have observed, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), whose numbers are considered to be the industry standard, has gotten carried away with digital subscriptions, allowing the Globe and other newspapers to count some subscribers two or even three times. Chesto writes:

This potential for discrepancies and confusion is one reason why the AAM board, which oversees how newspaper circulations are reported to advertisers, is weighing whether to tighten its rules.

It’s hard these days to get a precise number for unique paying subscribers, a figure that AAM was generally able to provide, back when it was known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and readership was essentially measured by the number of copies sold.

There’s no question we need a standard that everyone can agree on and that makes sense. Paid digital has enabled the Globe to improve its circulation numbers, and that’s fine. But the AAM system is so out of whack that it’s in danger of not being taken seriously.

The challenge of counting digital subscribers

UnknownHow many digital subscriptions has The Boston Globe sold? According to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, there were 45,971 “digital-only subscribers” in September — an increase of nearly 80 percent over the 25,557 who had signed up a year earlier.

That sounds impressive. But it’s a pittance compared to the numbers compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), which recently released a report claiming the Globe had an average of 86,566 digital readers for its Monday-through-Friday editions for the six-month period ending Sept. 30.

The difference is in how you count digital subscriptions. I’ve written about this before, but the AAM’s methodology is becoming increasingly controversial, as some readers are being double- or even triple-counted.

Here’s how it works. As Clegg says, the number reported by the Globe represents only customers who have signed up for paid online access through the BostonGlobe.com website, the iPhone app, the ePaper replica edition or an edition for e-readers like the Kindle.

If anything, that methodology undercounts digital readership. For instance, we pay for home delivery of the Sunday paper, which entitles us to digital access at no extra charge — and that’s how we read the Globe Monday through Saturday. Yet according to Clegg, because we have not specifically purchased a digital edition we are counted as Sunday-only print subscribers.

By contrast, under the AAM methodology you could sign up for seven-day home delivery of the print edition — and if you also regularly log on to BostonGlobe.com at work, you’d count as a digital subscriber as well. If you download and use the Globe iPhone app to check the headlines while waiting for the subway, well, there’s a good chance you’ll be counted again. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab recently broke it down:

AAM wrote a blog post in May explaining that a paying print subscriber at a paywalled newspaper can actually count as two “subscriptions” if publishers provide proof that the subscriber activated their username and password for digital. And there’s no reason to stop at two: “each digital platform,” like an iPhone app, can count as its own sub too.

And in a considerable understatement, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon — noting that the AAM methodology allowed USA Today to claim a 67 percent increase in paid circulation — wrote that “the new figures make many comparisons challenging.”

The good news for the Globe is that paid circulation more or less held its own during past year even if you use the paper’s own understated figures. From September 2012 to September 2013, print circulation of the Monday-through-Friday edition fell from 180,919 to 166,807, according to the AAM. On Sundays it fell from 323,345 to 297,493.

But when you factor in  digital-only subscriptions, the Globe had a paid Monday-through-Friday circulation of 212,778 this September, up from 206,476 a year ago — an increase of 3 percent. On Sundays, total paid circulation declined from 348,902 to 343,464, or about 1.5 percent.

The picture looks considerably brighter if you use the AAM’s figures. By those measures, Monday-through-Friday paid circulation at the Globe rose from 230,351 to 253,373, an increase of about 10 percent. Sunday circulation rose from 372,541 to 384,931, or 3.3 percent.

What is the most accurate measure? The AAM figures may be exaggerated, but it’s also clear that the Globe’s measurements undercount paid subscribers — especially Sunday-only print customers who read the paper online during the rest of the week.

My best estimate is that paid circulation at the Globe is stable or growing slightly. And though digital advertising is not nearly as lucrative as its print counterpart, the far lower costs of digital publishing should help John Henry and company offset the loss in ad revenue.

Certainly Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell must be looking closely at the Globe’s strategy. According to the AAM, paid circulation of the Monday-through-Friday Herald dropped by 9 percent, to 88,052, over the past year. The Sunday edition fell by 7.5 percent, to 71,918.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (I): Newspapers

Haverhill Gazette building in 1919
Haverhill Gazette building in 1919

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the first of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 residents, is served by a daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. Since 2005 both papers have been owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), a national chain of more than 130 newspapers and other publications based in Montgomery, Ala. CNHI’s major financial benefactor, oddly enough, is the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which launched the company with a $1.1 billion loan. In 1999, Mary Walton profiled CNHI in the American Journalism Review.

The Eagle-Tribune, whose headquarters are in North Andover but which is historically associated with Lawrence, publishes seven days a week, including a separate Haverhill edition every day except Monday and Saturday. The Gazette, founded in 1821, was an independent daily for much of its history. A newspaper strike in 1957 led to a debilitating battle with the notoriously right-wing publisher William Loeb, who launched a rival daily, the Haverhill Journal. As described in a recent essay by Tim Coco, president and general manager of the nonprofit radio station WHAV, by the mid-’60s the Journal had ceased to publish and the Gazette was left in a diminished state. The Eagle-Tribune acquired the Gazette in 1998 and converted it to a weekly.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), The Eagle-Tribune’s average paid circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year was 33,296 on Sundays and 32,101 on weekdays. As with many papers, circulation has been dropping in recent years; for the same six-month period ending on March 31, 2010, circulation was 40,800 on Sundays and 39,947 on weekdays. It is worth noting that all or most of The Eagle-Tribune’s content is available for free at its website, www.eagletribune.com.

No paid circulation figures are available from the AAM for either the Haverhill edition of The Eagle-Tribune or for The Haverhill Gazette. Currently, though the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. is telling prospective advertisers that the Gazette has a circulation of 3,900 (pdf) — down from 6,350 in 2007 (pdf). Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview. But according to a knowledgeable source, The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation in Haverhill is somewhere around 5,000, perhaps a bit less.

Despite its relatively modest size, The Eagle-Tribune has a distinguished history, having won Pulitzer Prizes in 1988 and 2003. Both of those awards predated CNHI’s 2005 acquisition of the paper and its affiliated newspapers, which include three other dailies — The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. In recent years, those papers — like many newspapers nationally — have undergone several rounds of layoffs and budget cuts. Since 2009, editorial staff members have been required to take unpaid furloughs for one week each quarter, according to several sources inside the company.

In Haverhill, CNHI’s cuts hit home in March 2012 when the downtown office was closed. “It has always been my goal to put as many people under as few roofs as possible while maintaining the quality of our newspapers,” then-publisher Al Getler wrote in a message to readers, adding: “With today’s technology, our reporters no longer need to sit behind a desk in an office to get their job accomplished.”

The loss of a downtown presence, though, meant that residents could not drop by with news items or story tips. Some newspaper owners hold a different view regarding the desirability of a downtown presence. For instance, the New Haven Register, which no longer needs its office-park location after outsourcing its printing to the Hartford Courant in 2012, is looking to relocate to a downtown office so that it would be more accessible to the public, according to an article by Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

1823_Haverhill_Gazette,_and_Essex_Patriot_Feb15With very few exceptions, virtually all Haverhill articles in both The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette are produced by two staff reporters, itself a diminution from years past. An editor at The Eagle-Tribune spends most of his time overseeing Haverhill coverage.

In most communities served by a daily and a weekly, the papers compete for stories. But in Haverhill, common ownership has led to a different approach — mostly hard news in The Eagle-Tribune and soft features in the Gazette. Thus Haverhill readers must buy both papers if they wish to be fully informed.

In my experience, content analyses are of limited value since qualities such as accuracy, context and thoroughness are difficult to assess without deep knowledge of a community. Nevertheless, I examined the two papers’ Haverhill coverage for April of this year. What follows are a few observations about each.

The Eagle-Tribune

Daily coverage focused heavily on governmental sources of news. I counted 55 bylined stories that were entirely about or mostly about Haverhill. Of these, 20 emanated from city hall; 10 involved public safety or the courts; and six involved the school committee or other school authorities. Enterprise stories — that is, stories generated solely by journalists and not tied to any particular event — were virtually non-existent.

April, of course, was the month when the Boston Marathon bombings took place. The Haverhill edition ran several related articles, including one on a vigil and another on six Haverhill police officers who assisted with operations in Watertown, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was ultimately taken into custody.

Routine police news and press releases are published inside the Haverhill edition. “Haverhill in a Minute,” a round-up of such items, lets people know what’s going on in the community, with announcements from organizations such as Northern Essex Community College, churches and various civic organizations.

Also during April there were three unsigned editorials that touched on Haverhill topics and several letters to the editor from Haverhill residents.

The Haverhill Gazette

The Gazette each week comprises 14 pages that are geared toward light features and photo essays. Characteristic features during April included a story on how reduced fees were leading more Haverhill High School students to play sports; the rise of outdoor dining at downtown restaurants, attributed to an initiative by Mayor James Fiorentini; and a volunteer effort to repair 15 homes owned by low-income or disabled residents.

Every week the front page includes an anonymously written column called The Lamp Post, a breezy compilation of observations, shoutouts and mild gossip. An example: “Drivers waiting at red lights at the intersection of Ginty and Bailey boulevards are getting frustrated, and who can blame them?” Another example: “Sacred Hearts School had a celebration to kick off the Red Sox home opener on Monday. The school’s kindergarten classes had a special lunch and activities, including a parade.”

The Gazette also includes a much longer, more complete version of the police log, parts of which also appear in the daily Haverhill edition; editorials; historical photos; a column by a retired local journalist; listings from the local council on aging and Haverhill Community Television; and large photo essays on youth sports and other activities.

***

In terms of quantity, types of stories covered and general approach, the two papers offer local journalism that — based on my experience as a longtime observer of local journalism — is no better and no worse than what is available in many communities.

What comes across is a certain comprehensiveness to the coverage, especially involving city government, but a lack of voices from the community and from the city’s neighborhoods. The bifurcated nature of the coverage is a problem, as it essentially requires residents to read both papers. The Gazette, by highlighting positive news in the community, fulfills some of the civic engagement functions of journalism better than The Eagle-Tribune. But that advantage is undermined by the absence of hard news.

Because Haverhill Matters is likely to take a different, more hyperlocal approach to coverage than either The Eagle-Tribune or the Gazette, there’s an opportunity for cooperation. For instance, it would not be hard to imagine the two papers’ repurposing some of Haverhill Matters’ neighborhood news on their websites.

For the moment, though, there do not appear to be any plans to form such a relationship. Eagle-Tribune editor White, as I mentioned earlier, declined to be interviewed. But Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, told me in an email that the fledgling site’s expected reliance on paid advertising might preclude a partnership.

“Even though we plan to focus on the news areas they don’t cover well, collaboration may be tough since we are competing for the same ad dollars,” LaBonte said. “Personally I think it will just have to wait until we see what our strengths and weakness are a year or two from now.”

Images via Wikipedia.

In latest circulation numbers, the difference is digital

Print circulation at the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald continues to slide, according to the latest data from the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

But the Globe’s success in selling digital subscriptions has led to a healthy 8.9 percent increase in its Monday-through-Friday paid circulation and a 4.6 percent increase on Sundays. The Herald’s paid circulation, by contrast, is down 11.6 percent on weekdays and 10.8 percent on Sundays.

The numbers are based on a comparison between the six-month periods ending on March 30, 2013, and March 30, 2012. Here are the topline figures:

  • Boston Globe: Weekdays, 245,572, up from 225,482. Sundays, 382,452, up from 365,512.
  • Boston Herald: Weekdays, 95,929, down from 108,548. Sundays, 73,043, down from 81,925.

The underlying totals tell an interesting story. The Globe’s weekday print circulation dropped from 195,947 to 172,048 (down 12.2 percent), and its Sunday print edition fell from 343,194 to 309,771 (down 9.7 percent). But the number of readers who use the Globe’s paid website, BostonGlobe.com, rose from 19,313 to 60,134 on weekdays and from 19,599 to 60,301 on Sundays.

(Note: Despite the seeming precision of these figures, there may be some minor discrepancies. The 2012 totals in the just-released “Newspaper Snapshot” do not perfectly match the audit reports posted elsewhere on the AAM site.)

As I’ve explained before, the actual number of digital subscribers is about half that reported by the AAM, since its totals include print subscribers who also make regular use of BostonGlobe.com, which home-delivery customers can access for free.

The Globe totals also include readers who access the ePaper — that is, the digital replica edition, which looks exactly like the print edition. A year ago, the ePaper was just barely getting off the ground. Now it accounts for 13,390 paid weekday subscriptions and another 12,380 on Sundays.

The challenge for the Herald is that, as readers lose the print habit, the paper is not offering a compelling paid digital alternative. The Herald has free smartphone and tablet apps, and, like the Globe, it posts a paid replica edition (the Electronic Edition), which is how we do most of our Herald-reading at Media Nation.

But replica editions just aren’t that compelling. Currently the Herald’s e-edition attracts 9,810 paying customers on weekdays and 1,216 on Sundays.

BostonHerald.com remains free. In the past, publisher Pat Purcell has dropped hints that that could change. Certainly it would surprise no one if that change came sooner rather than later.

Boosting digital subscriptions. The Globe’s free website, Boston.com, began running brief summaries of Globe stories today in an attempt to boost digital subscriptions.

The move had been expected for some time, as editor Brian McGrory talked about it in an interview with Andrew Beaujon of Poynter.org in February. But the timing could prove to be interesting, since it follows the Globe’s widely praised coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The paper lowered the paywall during the worst of it, which, as Seth Fiegerman reported for Mashable, resulted in an enormous increase in Web traffic. It bears watching to see how many of those readers can now be converted into paying customers.