The ProJo's Circulation Decline in Context

Yesterday, WPRI super-blogger Ted Nesi posted on the most recent circulation figures for the Providence Journal.

The paper, like many in the country, has been losing readers for years. And the new numbers, which show a nearly 7 percent drop in daily circulation for the six months ending March 31, 2012 compared to the same period in the previous year, are in some respects a continuation of a long-running, depressing story.

But the numbers, from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), may be worse than they actually seem. ABC figures show newspapers nationwide actually experienced a slight gain in circulation compared to last year - 0.68 percent, to be precise. No small feat in this media environment.

The jump owes much to a boost in paid digital subscriptions. And Audit Bureau rules allow papers to count subscribers more than once if they access the product on multiple digital platforms - say, a tablet and a smartphone.

Digital gains account for a huge jump at the New York Times, for instance, which registered a 73 percent increase in daily circulation over last year and now claims more digital than print subscribers.

So how do the Providence Journal's online efforts factor in?

Well, the Journal erected its own paywall in February, about a month before the period covered by the most recent circulation report closed. And while fewer than 300 signed up for the new e-edition in that short space of time, it is probably too early to judge the success of the paywall.

Moreover, success shouldn't be measured by digital subscriptions anyhow. At least in the short run. The ProJo's paywall seems designed not to boost on-line revenue, but to drive readers back to the far more profitable print-and-ink version of the paper. Indeed, the paper's web presence is now, essentially, a glorified pdf of the print product. Hardly an enticing lure.

If data from the next three or six months shows the ProJo's decline in print subscriptions slowing, or even reversing itself, then the paper can claim success for now.

But you've got to wonder about medium- and long-range viability of the strategy. With papers like the Times and the Globe building increasingly successful web operations, the Journal seems to be drifting further and further behind.


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