Friday, August 27, 2010
What's Not Black and White Or Read All Over
[Doubletree Hotel Seattle, this morning]
USA Today, that traveler's insistent, gaudy would-be road companion, is deemphasizing its printed newspaper and betting on better fortunes in online-digital forms, including with iPhone and Android apps.
An era is ending.
Once derided as "Useless Today," the compact and colorful 28-year-old Gannett national paper has kind of insisted its way into our routine on the road, sometimes with very good journalism, though it chooses its shots selectively. But always, always, it has simply been there for us, usually for free, right outside our hotel room door. Gannett has always been very coy about how much of the "paid" circulation claimed for USA Today is acounted for by those free papers in hotels and airports.
USA Today, which likes to call itself the nation's second largest newspaper (though it publishes only five days a week and though I have always been very skeptical of its paid-circulation claims), said yesterday that it is cutting back at the print paper and focusing more on the online product.
That will mean about 130 layoffs, says the the paper, which employs a mere 1,500 total. USA Today didn't say how many of those 130 layoffs would be in the newsroom, which has a relatively small staff compared with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. The Gannett newspaper empire, which owns 83 dailies, has always provided logistical and other resources to USA Today through its numerous local newspapers, often to the irritation of those local papers.)
The official line is that fewer people are paying for a newspaper because news is available for free online -- but that kind of covers up a well-known fact about USA Today. That is, most of us never paid for it in the first place. I myself have not once ever actually purchased a USA Today, and look at it only when a hotel gives it to me. Then I spend maybe 5 minutes on it.
And this from a lifelong print newspaper junkie.
Now, increasingly, I just leave USA Today outside the door. and I'm not the only one. I'm in a hotel in Seattle right now, and up and down the long corridor lie USA Todays untouched outside doors.
In fact, this tendency for hotel guests not even to pick up the free newspapers so annoyed J.W. Marriott Jr., the CEO of the Marriott hotel company, that he ordered Marriott's 2,600 U.S. hotels to stop leaving USA Today outside rooms last year. Bill Marriott thought the clutter in the corridors distracted from appearances. That decision contributed to a sharp drop in USA Today's claimed paid print circulation.
And here's a little secret about newspaper circulation. Thanks mostly to the forceful personality and lobbying of the flashy USA Today founder, longtime Gannett CEO and journalism buckaneer Al Neuharth, the industry audit organization that certifies print circulation went along with a new formula that greatly relaxed the rules under which newspapers could count so-called "bulk sales" as paid circulation.
Bulk sales are papers that go to places like hotels, which get them at a great discount off the cover price. It used to be that a bulk sale of 50 percent of cover price counted as paid circulation, but hotels and other businesses that distribute newspapers to guests have often concocted advertising barter deals that essentially mean no real money actually changes hands.
And the definition has also changed for bulk sales, which now fall under the category of "third-party sales," as defined by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the main circulation-audit firm. To wit:
"(b) All copies purchased by hotels, restaurants, airlines and rental car agencies for free distribution to their guests and by sponsors for free distribution to hospital patients and nursing home residents, regardless of the number of copies, will be reported as Third-Party Sales when at least one cent is paid, either in cash or by applicable barter. Evidence of this payment must be recorded and made available to ABC auditors."
And by the way, the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper that is now generally called the nation's number one paper in circulation (though it publishes just 6 days a week), also is almost handing it out almost for free at times. I recently decided to renew both my print and online subscriptions to the Journal. What a deal I got! For $139, I got a whole year of print delivery to my home, as well as online access. The Journal, also, gets to claim its online paid subscribers as if they were full paid subscribers to the print paper.
So my $139 a year somehow counts as paid print circulation -- just the same as the $2 per copy I pay daily and $5 Sunday for the New York Times, which does not base its circulation of almost one million daily on giving the paper away in a hotel.