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Many Threaten, But Most Don't Cancel The Post

By Andy Alexander

There’s not a lot of cheer in the newspaper industry, and last week’s Washington Post Co. quarterly earnings report added to the gloom. It noted that the newspaper division had a $53.8 million operating loss.

But in this darkness there is a shaft of light, and it reveals what I think are two interesting reader myths about The Post.

First, contrary to assertions by many who write me, The Post’s circulation is not plummeting. In fact, despite a bad economy and a recent price increase for the paper, Post readers remain pretty loyal. Monday-to-Friday circulation for The Post increased slightly (0.7 percent) during the first three months of the year, compared to the same period in 2008. Some of that was a result of increased sales around the presidential inauguration. But looking at a longer period, the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show The Post had a decline of less than 2 percent for the six months ending March 31. That compares to an average drop of 7 percent for the 395 newspapers reporting their six-month circulation figures. The Post’s average daily circulation stands at 642,000. Average Sunday circulation during the first quarter declined 1.7 percent, to 871,000, from the same period a year ago.

Second, when something in the newspaper provokes controversy, scores of angry Post readers typically e-mail or call me to say they’re canceling their subscription. Many threaten, but comparatively few follow through.

More than 750 readers complained when The Post recently eliminated some comics as part of a cost-cutting measure. But only about 30 cited the comics changes as a reason for canceling their subscription. And rarely a day passes without a handful of irate readers telling me they’ve dropped their subscription because the paper is too biased. But so far this year, The Post’s circulation department reports that only about 1 percent cited “bias” as their reason for canceling.

So why the relatively low number of heat-of-the-moments cancellations?

Many readers who are outraged about a specific item in The Post also seem to be addicted to reading the paper. They often have good reason for being angry – The Post, like all newspapers, makes mistakes. But complaining readers often start to cool down after venting to the ombudsman, writing a letter to the editor or sounding off to an editor or reporter. And I suspect most eventually view The Post as being essential, despite their lingering ire and despite the paper’s imperfections.

Also, some readers who threaten immediate cancellation have pre-paid their subscription. So they don’t follow through because it doesn’t make sense to stop the paper before it expires. And by that time, many decide to stick with The Post.

Can the newspaper stay even on circulation in the short term? That’s a formidable challenge. Free online alternatives will cause erosion. The huge first-quarter operating loss portents more pain ahead in terms of reduced staff and content. And that will surely test the loyalty of readers who wonder if they should be paying more for less.

By Andy Alexander  | May 7, 2009; 12:02 PM ET
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I am not "threatening" to cancel my subscription. After the hard right turn by the Post's editorial page caused by the takeover by Fred Hiatt, I CANCELLED my subscription and it remains cancelled.

The Post's circulation has not grown with the area's population, and I think that reflects the distaste many Washingtonians, Marylanders and Northern Virginians have for the Post's constant defenses of some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration, including its many policies that have been PROVEN disastrous. I believe that many of the Post's remaining subscribers do so for the local ads.

I will resubscribe when the Post's views better reflect those of the community it serves, as it did for so many years as its reputation among the world's greatest newspapers grew and grew. We are one of the most progressive areas in the United States, and the Post should reflect that fact in its editorial stances and in the inflection of its news coverage.

I really WANT to resubscribe to the Post, but as long as it insists on emulating the Washington Times, I will NEVER do so.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | May 7, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The Wash Po is hopelessly liberal, but it is an excellent newspaper and its demise would be catastrophic.

The Wash Po can make MUCH more money online and from the Comments online.

You do not seem to realize that the Comment section is an entirely new Media that readers and Commenters spend far more time perusing and reading than the paper copy.

The online Comment sections is a Quantum Leap synergistically from the Print edition.

You could also SELL separate PAID comments online from those responding to your Articles.

A split screen (Paid comments on left, free on right with scroll) would enable Commenters to then respond for free to the Paid comments.

Try paid online focus groups for those interested in a specific area (Agriculture, Manufacturing, Stimulus Cash etc) for Wash Po content not published in paper or in the regular online edition.

This does not exist now and you could charge from conception.

Posted by: JaxMax | May 7, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Commenters like JaxMax, who is quite busy in other comment forums as well, perpetuate the myth that the Post is a "liberal" paper and that there is an army of outraged conservatives ready to take down the Post if it doesn't adhere to their preferences. But it's the first comment that is true - in the past week, the Post has run editorials by Margaret Spellings and John Bolton, but no current Obama Administration members. Someone please explain why the newspaper (supposedly) of record in Washington, DC continues to peddle the opinions of FORMER administration officials but can't seem to get CURRENT officials on its op-ed page.

As for the conservative posters - they obviously have the ombudsman's ear, as demonstrated by his riduculous coddling of them in the great Tom Shales caper. An ombudsman worth his salt would have told those crybabies to come back when they can learn the difference between a Style column written by a TV critic and news article, then spilled no ink whotsoever on that phony controversy. And an ombudsman at the Washington Post should take a few moments to consider the asps he's holding close to his breast - conservative whiners are the ones that have long held the Post in contempt as the "liberal media" and will be the first to cheer when it goes under, no matter how hard you try to cater to their concerns. Meanwhile, you, the editorial page editors and writers, and increasingly many reporters are consistently turning away non-conservative readers with hard-right commentaries, an overindulgence of tender conservative consciences and articles that travel far and wide to portray a rump Republican rearguard as eminently worthy of quotation and analysis, even though they have absolutely nothing to offer to the public policy debate than "Obama's a socialist." You are on the wrong side of history - the Bush Administration is gone, the Obama Administration is moving forward with popular backing, and eventually no one will pay attention any longer to outlets like the Post as long as they keep pretending that conservatism is running the show and they better get with the program.

And lastly, Mr. Ombudsman, you recently commented in your online discussion that you saw no difference between paying subscribers and free online visitors, considering both "loyal readers." In addition to being a rather myopic ombudsman, you really don't have a lot of business savvy either, do you?

Posted by: dwt301 | May 7, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

The "liberal bias" screed that many attack the Post and the NY Times with is utterly amusing, in that it only reflects the bias of the reader. Stephen Colbert's brillant line regarding this "the truth has a liberal bias" really is classic, in that it represents some truth.

However, the supposed bias of any media just represents the reader's desire to see other facts in place of the ones that they are reading.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | May 7, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Even if some of you out there refuse to see the WAPO for the liberal rag that it is, I am one of the many who have actually canceled my subscription for that very reason. (Let's see -- how many Republican candidates has WAPO endorsed in presidential elections?) The Wall Street Journal is a far superior news product.

Posted by: DnMn | May 7, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

It makes me roll around laughing when folks try to paint the Post and other papers as moving to the right. Most major newspapers are liberal based. You can read in what they write and confirm by reading the bios of the folks that write for the papers. The problem with most papers is that they let the liberal bias leak into the what they call investigative reporting. And yes, I did cancel my subscription to the Post months ago after reading some particularly nasty trash from Meyerson and Robinson.

Posted by: mmourges | May 7, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

The Post and NY Times are completely slanted to the left. It boggles the mind when people try to argue the opposite.

Don't believe me? When was the last time the Post or NY Times endorsed a Republican for President?

Posted by: ImpeachObama | May 7, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Get rid of little boy Eugene Robinson - He is a Baracky Hussein Obama lover.

Posted by: hclark1 | May 7, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I never actually cancelled my paid subscription. I simply did not renew it. And while I do believe that the Post is hopelessly biased to the left, my main reason for cancellation was that I couldn't see any reason to pay for what I could get for free on the Internet. (And I got tired of people helping themselves to my paper if I didn't pick up at the crack of dawn.)

Posted by: WashingtonDame | May 7, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Charging for comments is a brilliant suggestion. It would generate support from those who -- like four commenters here -- claim to have stopped paying for the paper but still like it enough to freeload online. Don't charge enough to deter people; $.001 per word (ten words for a penny) might be enough. And no, the charge should not vary with the length of the words or the quality or ideology of the comment.

Posted by: cjohnson1 | May 7, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

What is the cost of the free papers handed out at Metro stations? I always believed that the freebies seved to canabalize reguar Post Subscriptions. At the very least, potential subscibers are lost.

Posted by: viavalerie | May 7, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm 23. I've never subscribed to a newspaper or a print magazine, and I never will. That's not really unusual. I already use my computer for email, Facebook, videos, blogs, games, etc., already. I grew up with the Internet.

In fact, since I've been using the web as a news source for about as long as I've been a regular reader of "print" journalism, I actually find it quite difficult, physically speaking, to navigate a newspaper. It always ends up in some sort of monstrous mess; I have to dig around to find the second half of headlines, navigate arcane folding patterns, try not to drop anything.... It's a terribly inconvenient medium. I'm sure I wouldn't think so if I were used to it. But I'm not, in the same way that I'm also not used to telegraphs or horse-drawn buggies.

The readers you're losing...they're gone. You're not going to get them back to the way things were. The papers will of course continue to crumble---I'm sure you'll survive, but maybe a lot of local markets won't. (If I ever buy a newspaper subscription, it will be for my own local paper, and I will have it delivered directly to a recycling center. I read it online.)

Anyway, good luck finding a better business model.

Posted by: AhhWoo | May 7, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

While we're commenting on the phenomenon of online Washington Post reader comments (gosh, I just added another layer by commenting upon the fact that we're doing that... paging M.C. Escher), is anybody disturbed that the "evidence" of death threats submitted by the holdout hedge funds in the Chrysler bankruptcy proceedings was... death threats in the Washington Post comments sections? Not from all over the place, but specifically, the Post.

The Chrysler judge ruled this was insufficient evidence and released the names anyway. But as a commenter and subscriber, I was embarrassed that the hedge fund attorneys had such easy pickings here.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | May 7, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I have had many criticisms of the Post's reporting over issues like torture and the failure to adequately examine Bush admin claims regarding WMD. But outside of their notably republican slant, they are the most important news service in America. I hope the best for them as America needs the Post even with its warts.

Posted by: fishingriver | May 7, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

As a former admirer of The Post, I was deeply puzzled by your syncophantic toadying to the criminal Bush Administration. Then, I realized that you were simply trying to out-Neocon the Washington Times, so that the Moony paper would have no reason to exist.

Once the Times goes away, one expects you to return to a rational, logical, self-respecting editorial position. At that point, your circulation will begin to grow, as the base of educated readers in the D.C. area begins to feel less alienated by your Kafkaesque presentation of reality.

Posted by: motorfriend | May 8, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

Andrew, you are probably right about people not canceling. But most may not be print subscribers. What amazes me is the strong opinions that the Post is either totally liberal or totally conservative. Am I reading the same copy in the Post?

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | May 8, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Andrew, you are probably right about people not canceling. But most may not be print subscribers. What amazes me is the strong opinions that the Post is either totally liberal or totally conservative. Am I reading the same copy in the Post?

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | May 8, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Paul, there's a large class of people out there who believe that any media that doesn't specifically go out of its way to promote their point of view is actively working against them.

I'd wager that there are (slightly) more conservatives in that camp. The difference could probably be explained by the fact that the Republican establishment actively encourages this mindset; although, ideology is really less important than one's proclivity toward hysteria.

Posted by: AhhWoo | May 8, 2009 2:06 AM | Report abuse

I once heard a reporter field an angry phone call with: 'Madam, if you persist in this manner, I'll be forced to cancel your subscription!'

Posted by: elephant | May 8, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

AhhWoo, still remains the problem of how Post copy can be interpreted as both liberal and conservative??? Maybe Hamlet had a point: "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." What do I know?

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | May 8, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Fred Hiatt drove me away as well. I live in the Maryland boondocks but I always picked up a Sunday Post until Hiatt and his Israel-first hecklers took over the Op-Ed pages. If I want to read garbage like that I always can read the New York Post online.

Posted by: maxfli68 | May 9, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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