September 11, 2013

The Newspaper Association of America has reported a decline in industry ad revenues every three months since a modest gain in the second quarter of 2006. That adds up to six-and-a-half years — 26 consecutive quarters — of revenue losses through 2012.

Without announcement, NAA has stopped compiling and releasing quarterly figures this year. So now in mid-September there is no industry-wide indicator of industry revenue trends for the first half of 2013.

In an interview for the Harvard Riptide project, NAA CEO Caroline Little said she and the organization’s board decided it was time to stop beating themselves up four times a year with the negative numbers. The organization still intends to release an annual revenue report in spring 2014. Little explained her thinking in an interview with Riptide co-author Paul Sagan:

Little: You know, one of the frustrations about doing this job is people just say, “Newspapers are dead.” And all media has been disrupted in the past 10, 15 years. The saddest part for me is, when I came to the Newspaper Association, which pretty much does things the way that they’ve been doing things for a long time, we were publishing the print advertising numbers and the print circulation numbers every quarter.

And every quarter, we’d send out a press release, which would start something like, “For the 21st quarter in a row, the newspaper industry has lost X, X, and X.” And I’m like, we’re press releasing this? I mean, it was so hard just to stop doing the press release, but at the same time you think, “Well, you’re the trade association, you could make the numbers transparent.” So, I did a little study, and I found that every time we released those numbers, about 100 stories would come out citing the NAA numbers saying the newspaper industry is dead.

So meanwhile, the board is telling me, you know, we’ve got to get that. We’re not suffering. We’ve got challenges, but everybody’s challenged. We should get a PR firm. And I’m like, great, we can get a PR firm, but we’ve got to change the numbers and metrics, because we’re going to get the same story.

Sagan: You were leading with your chin.

My recollection is a little different from Little’s. The quarterly press releases stopped in 2008, but the numbers continued to be posted on NAA’s website. Industry reporters and commentators like me, Reuters’ Jennifer Saba and Newsosaur’s Alan Mutter would pick them up and do stories on them.

I spoke to Little by phone, and she said the break with traditional reporting was part of a broader effort to get better information on a range of revenue-generating activities. The first effort at that, as I reported in April, turned up $5.5 billion in circulation revenue, niche and weekly publications, contract printing, direct mail, digital marketing services and events that had not previously been counted.

Reports from public companies (required by securities laws) indicate that advertising revenue declines have continued this year — and at roughly the 6 to 7 percent rate typical of the three previous years.

I asked Little whether what is happening in print advertising and the degree to which digital gains offset print losses is still an important measure of the industry’s financial performance. Little said yes. She also agreed that absent NAA estimates, public company reports are a reasonable proxy for the entire industry.

But Little noted that print advertising, particularly, is becoming a smaller piece of the total, falling from more 82 percent in 2000 to under 50 percent in 2012. “That’s not a targeted area of growth for most companies,” she said.

With digital subscriptions and price increases, circulation revenues revenues rose 5 percent last year, according to NAA’s estimate. Experimentation in “other” — non-advertising — activities are one of the brightest prospects for revenue gains.

I am of mixed mind about the NAA cutback of the information it gives out. The quarterly statistics have been an important reporting resource for me in Biz Blog posts and even more for the data summary I produce annually with the Pew Research Center for its State of the News Media reports.

Also, vague optimistic assurances about the future pop up with regularity in earnings conference calls and industry meetings. The revenue numbers provide a reality check on whether or not things are actually getting better.

However, the NAA is primarily a trade association and lobbying operation. I agree with Little and her board that the “newspapers are dead” meme is exaggerated and endlessly repeated by hostile commentators. Why pour fuel on that fire?

The changes in the works may prove a positive in painting a fuller financial picture of newspaper organizations’ strengths and weaknesses. Better yet, though, would be to get the revenue numbers headed in the right direction again.

(Disclosure: I moderated a panel at this year’s NAA mediaXchange conference and am consulting on the program for next year’s).

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

More News

Back to News