2010-04-14 / Media Watch

Media is quiet on economy’s impact

Greg Pearson

Those of us in the serious news business have been reporting extensively on how the declining economy has impacted all levels of government and many business categories, but hardly any of us has been definitive on how the soft advertising market has been affecting us. We like revealing your bad news but not ours.

For their printed products, daily newspapers nationally have been showing declines in total revenue in the 25 percent range for two consecutive years. Yes, that’s down about 50 percent from 2007, but some of that revenue has been reclaimed by those newspapers’ Web sites. It’s probably fair to say that few – if any – newspaper Web sites are profitable unless you allocate very little of the cost of news content from the printed papers to those Web sites. Much of what is on newspaper Web sites is also in the printed paper.

Weekly newspapers have fared better in the past two years, but percentage wise, nationwide they’ve been off in the mid-teens each year.

Last summer, John Reid Blackwell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) called the Chesterfield Observer to say he was doing a story on how weekly papers in the Richmond metro were faring in the economy. We called Blackwell twice last week to ask about what happened to the story, but never received a return call. Media General – the parent company of the RTD – owns weekly newspapers in Powhatan and Goochland counties and two other weeklies that cover Mechanicsville and Midlothian. We answered his questions, but to our knowledge, the story was never printed. A cynic would say someone at the RTD didn’t like how the story would read.

The Chesterfield Observer’s slowdown came later than other weeklies. 2008 was our best year ever, and last year total revenue declined 3.5 percent. We used much of the extra revenue to increase the number of pages per issue and increase our circulation – mostly by mailing more papers. Some weekly papers available only by free pick-up have apparently been coping with the advertising recession by cutting circulation.

The Chesterfield Observer, Style and Village News are independently audited, which confirms their circulation. Without an audit, there is the suspicion that publishers may inflate their circulations. There are a surprising number of publications in the area that are not independently audited: Midlothian Exchange, Richmond Magazine, Boomer Life and Chesterfield Living. In today’s advertising environment, there is the temptation to reduce expenses by cutting circulation, and for those publications that are mailed, cutting circulation also reduces mailing costs for additional savings.

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