Good circulation numbers require lots of effort

May 9, 2016

By Ken Blum
Black Ink

Let’s be candid about a trend affecting community newspapers.

When it comes to paid-circulation numbers, the consensus in our industry holds that larger metro dailies have fallen off the cliff, while hometown community newspapers remain on solid ground.

Relatively, this is true. But the assumption implies that paid circulation at hometown newspapers is as strong as ever.

Not true everywhere, in my experience. From my work as an adviser for paid community papers of all shapes and sizes, circulation is in fact on a downward trend (not spiral), which is concerning. Almost invariably, when I visit a newspaper and compare 2008 (when the recession began) paid circulation numbers with recent numbers, losses amount to between 10 and 20 percent, and sometimes more. And the losses tend to continue, not in a flood but a steady drip-drip-drip.


I’ll cite the two primary reasons:
1. the continuing demands on readers’ discretionary time, including hours and hours gazing at a computer or smartphone screen, and 2. the growth of bedroom exurbs where there is no sense of community.

What’s the answer?

Increasing paid circulation has to come off the back burner at hometown newspapers. The circulation promotion kettle has to be stirred—not periodically, but constantly.

Here are two recommendations in this regard.

1. Create a circulation committee at your newspaper. Name a chairperson. Meet once a month to select two projects for the coming month—one to increase single-copy sales, the other to increase subscriptions.

(Note: If you need ideas, I offer a CD with 1,000 ideas to building circulation at hometown newspapers. Just drop me an e-mail, and I’ll send the info at cost.)

Also, review your paper’s circulation totals—i.e., subscription and single-copy totals from the week of May 16 last year with an issue from the same week of this year.

2. Put someone in charge of overseeing the promotions and other tasks that are important to retain and build circulation. Everyone on the committee has responsibilities, but this person constantly stays on top of circulation as part of his or her job.

Suggestions for a checklist for this person:

1. Have all renewal notices been sent out on schedule—up to three, if necessary?

For those who did not renew, did we give them a call before ending the subscription?

(Report how many subscriptions were stopped during the month.)

2. For weeklies—were racks checked two days after delivery to see if more copies were needed?

3. Was every customer who came in the front office asked if he or she subscribes? If not, did we present a special offer? (Report how many front office subscriptions were sold during the month.)

4. Have those whose subscriptions expired more than three months ago been contacted with a special offer to renew?

5. Is a fresh, visible subscription offer placed on the website? (Report how many subscriptions—print, e-edition or both—were sold via the website during the month.)

6. Are the circulation promotions designated by the committee on schedule?

7. Is a visible, fresh, house ad promoting subscriptions in every issue of the paper?

8. Was a high-impact story above the front-page fold of every issue of the month? (Bring tearsheets to your monthly meeting.)

9. Have sample copies (with special subscription offer) been distributed to a selected area? (Report how many subscriptions were obtained from sample copies during the month.)

10. Has a report been prepared comparing subscription and single-copy totals for a given week this year compared to the same week last year?

Remember, the only way today’s hometown newspapers can retain and even build paid circulation numbers is through a consistent and persistent effort. © Ken Blum 2016


Ken Blum is the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business dedicated to improving the profitability and quality of community newspapers. He puts out a monthly free e-mail newsletter titled Black Inklings. It features nuts and bolts ideas to improve revenue and profits at hometown papers. To subscribe to the newsletter or contact Ken, e-mail him at or phone 330-682-3416.


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