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Civic Skinny

Register circulation drops sharply. Some other stuff.

1/9/2013

skinny DMR2Circulation of the Sunday and daily Des Moines Register has fallen more than 7 percent in the past year, the newspapers’ audit reports show. The drops accelerated after June 1, when the newspapers raised subscription prices by more than 30 percent and forced print customers to pay for digital access whether they wanted it or not.

The declines are heaviest on Mondays and Tuesdays, when the papers are thinnest but are priced higher to home subscribers.

Fewer than one in four households in Polk, Story, Dallas and Warren counties — what the Register calls its primary market — now get the daily Register either at home or at a newsstand. Only about 40 percent get the Sunday Register.

Here is a bunch of numbers:

The overall Sunday circulation in the six months ended Sept. 23 totaled 189,538, down from 199,988 in the 12 months ended June 24 and from 205,973 in the six months ended Sept. 25, 2011. In the four-county metro area, the Sunday figure now is 102,020, down from 107,806 four months earlier and 110,887 a year earlier.

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The Monday-Friday circulation in the latest six-month period was 97,518, down from 101,291 four months earlier and 105,151 a year before. In the metro area, the average daily circulation dropped to 58,113, from 60,827 in the June period and 62,615 a year earlier.

All figures include about 2,600 paid digital-only subscriptions.

At the same time, the population of the metro area has been increasing, so the newspapers’ “penetration” figure — the percentage of households buying the paper — has dropped even more sharply. This figure, which advertisers rely on, now stands at just 23.5 percent for the daily Register and 40.3 percent for the Sunday Register. A year ago, those numbers were 44.5 percent and 25.7 percent.

This marks the first time the penetration of the daily Register has dropped below one-in-four households.                

It’s unclear how the digital Register is doing. Figures submitted by the newspaper — but which are not audited by the industry group — say the number of computers signing in to the Register varies wildly from month to month. In September, the number was up sharply; but in August, it was down quite a bit from a year earlier. But one trend is clear: People are reading less on the website than they were a year ago. In September 2012, for instance, the number of page views dropped significantly, to 11,010,826 from 14,921,817 a year before.                

Several possible reasons: The website isn’t up-to-the minute enough for computer readers who expect the very latest. Or the website is hard to navigate. Or the website just doesn’t contain much news, even though readers can choose to read the not-updated morning newspaper page by page on the Web just as they can do at the breakfast table. Or all of the above.                

Meantime, subscribers and single-copy buyers are paying sharply more for the papers. On June 1, the single-copy price of the daily Register went to $1 from 75 cents, and on June 3 the price of the Sunday paper went to $2 from $1.50 — increases of 33.3 percent.               

According to the audit report, a seven-day subscription to the paper cost $223.60 a year until June 1, when the price was raised to $300.03. That’s a 34 percent increase. A Monday-Friday subscription went up 57 percent, to $216.02 from $137.80.                

The newspaper has quietly changed another policy. Formerly, if you went on vacation and stopped your subscription, that subscription was extended by the amount of time you were gone. Now, though, it is extended for only some of the time. How much time? “I really can’t tell you, sir,” a Register subscription operator in Greenville, S.C., told a subscriber last week. “Well, how will I know?” “Check your account after it is resumed.” “Don’t you have a table, or something, that will tell me?” “No, sir, but we have requested one.”                

But the bill of a subscriber who recently suspended delivery for several weekdays indicates the credit is about 35 cents a day, or about half the amount he pays for delivery. …                

Stephanie Rose was sworn in not long ago as the first female federal judge in the southern district of Iowa. In a profile of her the other day, the Register wrote: “In November, she became the youngest and highest-ranking female federal judge ever to work in Des Moines….”               

And, a reader emailed Skinny, “she also would be the oldest and lowest-ranking woman to serve as a federal judge sitting in Des Moines.” …                

While we’re poking at the newspaper, there was also this last week in an editorial about paying for college: “But families have a responsibility, too. They need to plan ahead and save as little or as much as they can. Too many are not doing that.”                

Think about it. …                

That dispute about how Des Moines residents are to be reimbursed for a tax that was illegally collected on their utility bills is before Judge Joel Novak in Polk County District Court. It’s a thorny issue: The illegal tax, or franchise fee, ended on May 26, 2009, and many people who paid the tax have moved and might be difficult to find. On the other hand, people who bought property after that date will be in effect penalized if the city finances the repayment by raising property taxes. And properties that pay no tax — government buildings, schools, churches and the like — might get a refund and have no offsetting tax costs, putting an extra burden on those residents and businesses who do pay property taxes. About $40 million is at stake.               

The city and legislators had worked out a solution last year — the now-legal franchise fee was to be increased temporarily to 7.5 percent from 5 percent, with the increase used to pay the restitution — but Gov. Terry Branstad inexplicably blocked it. So city fathers thought one way they could lessen the burden would be to ask some utility users to sign a letter and “voluntarily forego our right to restitution.” (Skinny would have said “forgo,” without the e, but we don’t get paid by the letter.) The city collected several signatures.                

But now, Judge Novak has in effect blocked that solution. “The Court is concerned about the contacts by the City that have occurred here,” he now has ruled, and “hereby orders [Des Moines] not to solicit class members, other than City officials, regarding issues remaining to be determined in this case, the administration of this case, and/or the desires of that class member to receive or not receive restitution in this case, subject to further order of the Court.”                

The ruling raises some First Amendment issues: Political speech has the highest protection of all speech, but does this ruling mean that the city’s politicians — council members — cannot talk to their constituents about this? Can they talk to Polk County legislators — members of the class if they live in Des Moines — about it? Can they talk to the Governor, who lives in Des Moines (in a tax-free mansion), about it?                

Seems odd. And unnecessary. And wrong. CV

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