Trimming the fringe

Trimming the fringe

Cranberg, Gilbert

“Two truths have governed the economics of the newspaper business. One is that well-to-do readers are more attentive to advertisers; the second is that poorer [lower income] readers build higher circulations. The history of journalism has been punctuated by periods when publishers have honored one of these truths at the expense of the other.” -Mitchell Stephens, A History of News (1988)

If you wonder which truth much of the press currently honors, consider the reaction of Joel R. Kramer, publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in 1995, when his paper posted a 4 percent circulation loss over three years after raising home-delivery prices 32 percent. “We are a healthier business,” Kramer told The New York Times, “if we are charging readers more and accepting a somewhat smaller circulation.”

Indeed, the Newspaper Association of America, the voice of publishers, looks benignly on declining newspaper penetration, finding much of it “self-induced by solid business decisions.” As members were advised in an NAA report, “1995 Circulation Facts, Figures, and Logic”: “Good business decisions are not always volume driven. One of the newspaper’s most basic and fundamental principles is changing. That is, more is not necessarily better; better is better.” The objective: measure readership by “market effectiveness” instead of by penetration numbers. For “market effectiveness” read: providing advertisers with readers who possess the upscale demographics merchants fancy.

In what amounts to a drive for class rather than mass, the report recommended three strategies:

Focus on the good customer who pays on time, preferably in advance, and who, in contrast to the “marginal subscriber,” doesn’t need to be lured with discounts.

* “Concentrate on aggressive consumer pricing.” (Translation: charge more for the paper.)

Eliminate “fringe circulation,” which “is of little value to advertisers.”

The “fringe circulation” issue has received some public attention – at least in its geographic interpretationas papers such as the Rocky Mountain News and The Des Moines Register have cut service to readers who were deemed too distant. But fringe circulation has another, less discussed meaning, one which raises troubling questions.

Asked for a definition, Miles Groves, the NAA’s chief economist, explained that while the term can refer to readers too far removed geographically to be of value to advertisers, it also has a socioeconomic dimension. “We’re basically delivering eyeballs to advertisers,” said Groves, and fringe readers, by definition, have lower demographics. To illustrate, he repeated the old tale about the tabloid owner who made an advertising pitch to a retailer by citing big circulation numbers. To which the merchant scoffed, “But your customers are my shoplifters.”

Groves quickly added that newspapers have to serve the whole community; that is their franchise, which they cannot afford to lose. Nevertheless, “low-income areas are not where you concentrate efforts,” and there must be stronger relationships between circulation and advertising. But won’t innercity readers be disadvantaged by aggressive pricing and fewer discounts? Groves’s rueful response: “Isn’t that the American way, for the poor to pay more?”

Neglecting the poor does seem to be the trend lately, but it’s a shame to see newspaper journalism as a force that increases their isolation. The notion clashes with the vision most editors hold of the newspaper as a forum for the whole community and a bulwark of democracy.

It even clashes to some extent with other stated goals of the NAA. In “Diversity, A Business Imperative,” another recent report, the organization admonishes, “By the year 2010, nearly one out of every two children under five years of age will belong to an ethnic minority group. These young people are the ones the newspaper industry must learn to attract as readers and as employees.”

Other newspaper industry reports abound with statistics projecting in the decades ahead an ever-increasing proportion of members of racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. population. “Cornerstone for Growth: How Minorities Are Vital to the Future of Newspapers,” a study underwritten by a dozen major news organizations, argues that “to counteract the decreasing numbers of traditional readers . . . newspaper publishers must focus on the dynamic segments of their local communities – minorities.”

Meanwhile, much of the rationale for the drive for diversity in newsrooms is to produce newspapers of greater relevance to minority-group readers. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the emphasis on marketing to deliver upscale customers to advertisers and the pleas to make minority groups, statistically more downscale, a cornerstone of circulation growth.

Newspapers interested in zeroing in on would-be subscribers with attractive demographics — homeowners with good jobs, educations, and incomes have powerful tools in the form of extensive databases and “precision marketing” systems. Instead of using mass phoning and mailing and random house calls, more and more papers can target precisely the kind of customers their advertisers want to reach.

Database marketing relies heavily on identifying and targeting lookalikes – non-subscribers who most closely resemble existing readers in terms of residence, demographics, and life-styles. Those readers, as industry likes to brag, are well-educated and upscale. And the more circulation falls behind population growth, the more newspapers stress to advertisers how well-off their readers are, and the less eager some papers evidently are to go after the less well-off.

Last fall, four students and I interviewed by phone circulation executives at ninety of the nation’s biggest one hundred papers to determine their strategies for reaching non-subscribers. We inquired specifically about efforts to target minorities and the inner city.

About 30 percent of papers reported special sales efforts aimed at minorities and lower-income readers. Typically, these consisted of discounts and shorter-term subscriptions. Some of these papers had representatives work with minority groups, used sales crews aggressively, and employed Spanishlanguage ads and publications to reach Hispanic readers.

For the most part, though, little if anything was done to beat the bushes for inner-city customers. We were told about redlining (usually at a former place of employment). Some circulation directors said that they don’t deliver to all parts of their cities for safety reasons. A number admitted that, in the inner city, they give fewer discounts, demand more payment in advance, and send in sales crews – if at all – only around the first of the month when welfare and Social Security checks are due. “We don’t want to spend direct-mail dollars there,” said one circulation director. Another candidly declared, “The inner city, from an advertiser’s standpoint, is undesirable, and for that reason we put our least amount of effort into it.”

Combine this with the targeting of look-alikes and you have a recipe for newspapers increasingly marketed to the elite.

These things worry some newspaper people. In an August column, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser noted that unlike the Post, “many newspapers have essentially adopted redlining: they simply cease to serve areas of little interest to advertisers.” Richard Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, contends that a high newspaper price is bad civics. “A lot of us are worried about whether newspapers are pricing themselves out of the market for the middleclass and lower-middle-class readers who have been the traditional core of newspaper readership,” he told The New York Times in December. “Newspapers should be the center of common experience and a common narrative in our communities.”

In his 1993 book, Read All About It!, James Squires, former editor of The Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune, complained forcefully about how the press is turning its back on low-income readers. He pointed out that almost any circulation director, if given more copies, a lower price, and promotion money, can increase circulation. “Why they are not employed is the dirty little secret of newspapering,” Squires wrote. “Because advertisers want only high-income, well-educated readers…. Thus, with few exceptions, the profitability of newspapers in monopoly markets has come to depend on an economic formula that is ethically bankrupt and embarrassing for a business that has always claimed to rest on a public trust.”

In a recent conversation, Squires termed diversity in newsrooms an inadequate substitute for the hard job of building circulation – by providing zoned editions for minority neighborhoods, by promotion, and by home delivery.

There is much impressive talk by press groups about diversity and the importance of minority groups to the future of newspapers. But it contrasts with the actions of newspapers that write off future generations of readers who have the misfortune to be too poor to ring the advertisers’ cash registers often enough.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Mar/Apr 1997

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.