Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Register circulation numbers hit a 90-year low.



The year was 1925. Des Moines was booming; its population had soared to more than 125,000. It had 110 churches, 16 movie theaters and three vaudeville houses. Nine railroads served the city, and there were four passenger depots and eight freight depots. There were 172 barbers, five hat manufacturers, 62 hotels, 38 billiard halls and five “automobile laundries.”

And there were four daily newspapers.

One of those newspapers was The Des Moines Register, and it had been growing rapidly since Algona banker Gardner Cowles moved to town and bought it in 1903, combining aggressive news-gathering with what one later publisher called ruthless business practices to produce a paper that was vigorous journalistically and strong financially. In 1925, circulation of The Des Moines Sunday Register hit 146,751, and it kept growing. In 1951, it peaked at 553,000.

Now, it is back below what it was 90 years ago, and it is in a free-fall. According to the latest audit, circulation of the Sunday Register in the six months ended Sept. 30, 2014, fell to 146,522. It has dropped nearly 100,000, or 40 percent, in nine years, and it is down 9 percent from the 161,184 of a year earlier.

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Those numbers include print and digital circulation, though the digital numbers continue to be quite small, and the number of “unique users” visiting the website has fallen alarmingly in the past 12 months.

The latest drop comes amid continuing turmoil at the newspaper, which Gardner Cowles’ descendants sold to Gannett in 1985. Layoffs and cutbacks have been almost annual events in recent years, and in recent weeks the news staff was again cut, this time by more than 10 percent, and — filling a template sent down from corporate headquarters — reporters and editors were reassigned and given odd titles. If a story doesn’t involve politics or sports at the University of Iowa or Iowa State University, it is given short shrift — if it gets any shrift at all.

The subscription price seems to be whatever the customer is willing to pay. The sticker price for daily and Sunday home delivery, plus web access, is $43 a month, but subscribers who call to complain about price increases are quickly offered new rates even below what they had been paying. The posted price for a subscription that includes the Sunday paper and total Web access is $240 a year, or $20 a month, but a recent Groupon email offered that at $49 for the year, or about $4 a month, or $1 a week — an 80 percent discount.  And Groupon probably keeps half that revenue.

Yet an executive at the paper told Cityview recently that the newspapers are quite profitable. The Sunday auto-sales section is particularly profitable.

The daily-circulation numbers are as dismal as the Sunday figures. In the latest six-month period, average Monday-Friday print and digital circulation was 84,530. That’s down 5.7 percent from the 89,685 of a year earlier, and it’s down about 44 percent from the 150,201 of nine years ago. Today’s daily circulation is the lowest in nearly 100 years.

The most important subscribers to the Register’s advertisers — and, thus, to the newspaper — are those who live in what the newspaper calls its “designated market.” That’s basically Polk, Warren, Dallas and Story counties. Sunday circulation in those counties now totals 79,154, which is down 9.9 percent from the 87,857 of a year ago. Daily circulation in the designated area now is 47,372, down 8.3 percent from the 51,676 of a year before, according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media.

In Polk County, the daily Register now goes into barely a quarter of the 175,000 households, the Sunday Register into barely four out of 10. In fast-growing Dallas County, the Sunday paper goes into fewer than one in four households, the daily into about one in six.

Though the paper pushes its Sunday-and-web subscriptions, readers can buy subscriptions to the digital edition only. There are two options. One, the “digital replica edition,” contains all advertising— except inserts — that is in the print edition. In the latest reporting period, 1,230 readers subscribed to the Sunday version of that and 2,237 subscribed to the daily version. The Sunday number was actually down from a year earlier; the daily number was up about 225 copies.

The other web option is the “digital non-replica” edition, which includes “select advertising” from the print edition. In the latest period, 4,974 Sunday subscribers bought that option and 6,603 subscribers bought the daily version. The Sunday number is up about 900 subscribers from a year earlier, the daily version up about 820.

While online subscription numbers are generally rising, the number of people actually looking at the Register online is dropping, according to Register figures. In each month from April through August in 2014, the number of “unique browsers” visiting the Register site was far below the year-ago figures, though the visitors looked at more pages once they accessed the site.

In April of this year, for instance, the website recorded 1,101,000 unduplicated “cookies” accessing the site, down from 1,590,224 a year earlier. The five monthly drops ranged from 45 percent in May to 31 percent in June. And the audit report notes that a cookie is not necessarily a person. …

Meantime, the Register is advertising for a business columnist, salary “not specified.” The reporter must be able to develop “a personal brand,” must “develop a following on social media” and must “speak truth to the state’s powerful business lobby.” …

The Gannett papers own a competitor of Groupon. It’s called “Deal Chicken,” and Gannett salespeople tout it as better than Groupon. (“Sure, there are other social commerce sites. But the DealChicken difference is this: Behind every local site, there’s an established Gannett media outlet with strong local business ties,” the website says.) So the use of Groupon to sell Register subscriptions is kind of interesting. Just kind of, though. …

Democratic State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald voted against paying the latest bill the LaMarca law firm submitted for its continuing and expensive defense of Gov. Terry Branstad and other state officials in the defamation, extortion, harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by former Workers’ Compensation Director Chris Godfrey. The bill, for $121,057.93, was approved by a two-to-one vote of the Executive Council. State Auditor Mary Mosiman voted yes, along with Branstad himself — though a case can be made that he should recuse himself from approving bills for his own defense. Secretary of State Matt Schultz and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey were absent, though they surely would have voted yes. Both are Republicans, like Mosiman and Branstad, and both have approved all previous LaMarca bills, which now total $648,140.93. …

Has Chuck Grassley become a Democrat? His office issued a press release the other day “inviting members of the Iowa legal community [who want to be a federal judge]to contact his office between now and January 9 in order to be considered for a recommendation by him to President Barack Obama.”

The way it works is this: The President nominates a person to be a federal judge, and usually that person is someone recommended by the state’s senior senator of the President’s party. If there is no Senate member of that party, the President looks elsewhere — to a fellow party member in the House or to a state chairman. Not to the opposing party. Even though Grassley is likely to be chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which first looks at Presidential nominations, his press release was unusual, to say the least.

“Grassley thinks he is President,” an Iowa lawyer told Cityview. …

If developer Richard Hurd is 62, as the Register said last week, his memory is playing tricks on him. When Hurd “was a kid,” the Register wrote, “Des Moines’ streetcar (sic) ran along Ingersoll Avenue….Hurd often would ride the streetcar into downtown.”

Doubtful. The last streetcar in Des Moines was retired in 1951. Streetcars quit running on Ingersoll in 1942. CV

Comment: Job Opening

The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett newspaper whose newsroom is run by former Register editor Carolyn Washburn, advertised for an investigative reporter the other day.

Besides seeking someone who is “nimble and can jump into any subject matter,” who can “provide solutions/ideas as well as problems,” (it’s unclear why the reporter should provide problems), who will “ensure your audience is growing and…pivot when it is not growing,” Washburn wants a reporter who will “work with your advertising partner to grow and monetize the 25-45 audience.”

It’s unclear how an investigative reporter can “monetize” his or her work.  I can think of only one way:

Reporter: “Hello, I’m an investigative reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer. I am working on a story that says the company you run is crooked. We won’t run it if you start advertising with us.”

Pivot.  Michael Gartner

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