You have to spend money to increase circulation

May 1, 2015

By Bob Bobber
Circulation Counts

I have worked with newspapers and magazines in markets of all types and sizes in my 43 years in the publishing business. I have toiled in virtually all the different disciplines associated with the industry. Not only have I been a publisher, but I have spent time with editorial, production, advertising, marketing and general management, but my primary emphasis has been circulation and its role in the publishing system. Not to over simplify things, but it really comes down to two basic tenants.

1. Circulation success is directly correlated to the amount of expense a newspaper is willing to devote to its function. In simple terms, it costs money to increase or even maintain your level of circulation.

2. There is no magic rock. Circulation is a nickel-and-dime business, and success in achieved by a wide-based effort. There is no one single action, promotion, event or accomplishment that guarantees success.


Circulation Success

Over the years there seems to have been a concerted effort by newspapers to find cost savings in circulation at the expense of quality delivery and growth. One of the primary reasons that I left the day-to-day circulation business was that there was a reluctance by the powers that be to pay carriers what they were worth.

Carriers in particular were the victims of increasing gas prices, higher vehicle expenses and increased workloads without any significant or subsequent financial help from the newspaper. Tens of thousands of carriers across America get up in the middle of the night or fight rush-hour traffic and tear up their vehicles with no benefits or overtime. They endure late papers, sloppy bundles and poor weather. For all of this, rarely do newspapers make any attempt to improve their earning power. On the contrary, there is more of a general feeling of, “what can we get by with,” when it comes to paying carriers.

Rate increases are greeted with little or no “split.” With this has come a reduction in quality carriers, and frankly, the only thing that has saved home delivery in recent years was the recession and or economy, which “forced” people to take routes as a last resort. The employment picture has brightened significantly, and the quality of carriers will drop to an all-time low if something isn’t done.

The tendency towards exaggerated frugality is also exhibited in the area of subscription sales or marketing. It costs money to keep and obtain new subscribers. The most haunting words I ever heard from a major newspaper executive were, “This paper will sell itself.” Let’s hope that no one really believes that.

If subscribers are truly our greatest asset, why won’t we spend more money to acquire them and equal amounts to keep them? Let’s do a little math for a second. Let’s say you have a 10,000-circulation weekly paid newspaper, and you feel it’s worth $2 million dollars. I am just pulling those numbers out of the air, but they are certainly in the ball park. That means each subscriber is worth approximately $200. How much are you spending to obtain or retain that $200?

One can argue that in today’s acquisition market, newspapers are not worth what they used to be, but you would have to get to a really low figure before you would get in the $20 to $30 per subscriber range where most newspapers operate. Think about it. Would you sell a 10,000 paid weekly for $200,000? Digital subscriptions are obviously changing the landscape and will continue to do so, but I don’t believe that any newspaper is willing to throw away its basic home delivered or single-copy sales revenue. In fact, there has been an increase in recent years at most newspaper’s reliance on that revenue stream.

Second, there is no Magic Rock. I have to give credit to my friend Dave Gossett for coining that phrase several years ago. He meant that everyone seems to be looking for that special offer, contest, promotion, newspaper design, special section, website, restructured department or whatever that will miraculously increase circulation and readership, correcting all that is wrong with a newspaper’s growth.

There is a belief that there are hundreds or thousands of readers out there that are just waiting for you to find that Magic Rock and do the right thing, they will flock to your newspaper in droves and save the kingdom. All you have to do is turn over that Magic Rock.

There is no Magic Rock. Just like there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Newspaper growth is not just circulation’s job. It is a team effort and a grind. It’s adding a few subscribers today and saving a few tomorrow. Great service is imperative. It takes all types of marketing including telemarketing, kiosk, crewing, special events, Internet, direct mail and NIE. It takes a quality product that engages the reader and makes them want to come back for more. The product has to be produced in an attractive, readable and navigable fashion. It has to be timely in delivery and news. It has to have ads that the reader can use and relate to. There is no one thing you can do to build your circulation. It is all these things working in concert.

I always found it amusing (if not insulting) that when the newspaper was increasing circulation, it was because it had a great product, but when circulation was down, it was because the circulation department wasn’t doing its job. Many believe that digital subscriptions will save the industry, and maybe they will, but that pot of gold is a long way down the rainbow, and we had better not forget which leprechaun gives us our coins today.

So there you have it, that’s what I have learned in 43 years in the circulation business. At last count, I had contracted with or worked with more than 130 different newspapers. I hope some have found some help in this demanding industry over the years. © Bob Bobber 2015


BOB BOBBER is a newspaper consultant specializing in circulation sales, training and public speaking. You contact him at

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