Commentary: Leaving Readers

The Atlanta Journal’s motto used to be, “Covers Dixie Like the Dew.”

But the dew is very light today. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or AJC, barely covers its own county. Its circulation dropped from 400,000 in 2005 to 330,000 in 2009, stark proof that newspapers on newsprint are dying, if the South’s largest and once most complete newspaper has lost 20 percent of its readers.

But that is not actually what happened. Readers didn’t abandon the AJC; it abandoned its readers. This is a trend that’s been occurring for years in the newspaper business. Despite what owners and publishers say, they don’t value subscribers as they once did.

That point was brought home dramatically to me more than 30 years ago when I sold the Opelika Auburn News to Thomson Newspapers. I proudly presented them with an ABC-audited 20,000 in paid subscribers, achieved at considerable effort and cost from just 6,000 10 years earlier.

One of Thomson’s first economy moves was to cut circulation by about 4,000, abandoning fringe counties deemed too expensive to serve, or whose readers were not valued by advertisers.

In a broader sense that’s what the Atlanta newspaper and others have done. The AJC ‘s management pulled in to just 20 of Georgia’s 159 counties. It once put papers into all 159 – a noble effort, but not profitable. Newspapers make money on advertising, not circulation, but circulation was once thought necessary to get more advertising. It actually depends.

I was upset when the Atlanta papers pulled out of Harris and Meriwether counties last year. Then the AJC stopped delivery to Athens-Clarke County. According to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation report, the AJC had 3,801 paid subscribers daily and 4,200 on Sunday in Clarke County, the site of the state’s major university. I can still buy USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in Athens, but not The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Many newspapers are cutting off their newsprint readers, through nondelivery or higher subscription and single-copy prices with the idea of converting them to online readers. Obviously, sending the daily news via computer is cheaper than printing copies and having hundreds of drivers deliver them.

There’s a big catch, however. We’re talking about two different kinds of media – newspapers and the internet.

As one national writer dramatically explained it: “Attempts by newspapers to shift their operation online have been commercial failures because they are trading old media (newspaper) dollars for new media (internet) pennies.”

The thousands of items advertised in the average newspaper can’t translate to the internet.

President Obama, in his speech at the White House Correspondents dinner, took note of newspapers’ problems and expressed his sympathy to the many newspeople who are losing their jobs. He recalled Thomas Jefferson’s statement: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, that right must be our priority, and were it left up to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Obama added, “Jefferson didn’t have to deal with cable TV.” He did have to deal with a very vicious press, however, and he felt its roses were worth the thorns.

Today we have a much more vast media world, and newspapers are only a part of it. Admittedly they are a shrinking part of it, but a crucial part. Some people would still rather pick up a paper than read it on a computer, and the convenience and sense of permanence will always appeal to a segment of the reading public.

I’ve been a publisher for 40 years, and even wrote a book on Georgia newspapers (The Last Linotype, published in 1985), so I have too much emotional and factual baggage to write objectively about the place newspapers have in today’s society, or in the future.

But there is no conclusive evidence that readers are abandoning print newspapers. There is plenty of evidence that newspapers have abandoned readers, through non-availability or higher prices.

Editor’s Note: Portions of this column were published in Grimes’ newspaper, The Harris County Journal.

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