By Ken Stone
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday that its daily circulation over the past year had plunged nearly 16% to a figure well below 100,000 copies.
In its Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation — required annually by the U.S. Postal Service — the U-T said its average daily circulation was 87,834, down from 104,377 over a similar 12-month period ending in September 2019.
The 2020 data said paid distribution was 76,932 — a figure that represents about 6.4% penetration of San Diego County’s 1.2 million households.
Jeff Light signed the statement Oct. 1 as U-T publisher and editor-in-chief.
On Tuesday, Light said the print circulation numbers were not a sign of distress.
“That is simply a mature and declining part of our business that is proceeding as planned,” he told Times of San Diego via email. “The U-T is healthy, profitable and tracking favorably to our long-term business plan for the transition to the digital era.”
Light said the 152-year-old news outlet has added close to 40,000 digital-only subscribers “as we fortify the foundations of the company in the community.” He declined to respond publicly to a question about total online subscription figures.
He also rejected a suggestion that billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who in 2018 also bought the Los Angeles Times, was subsidizing the Union-Tribune.
“Dr. Soon-Shiong is an extraordinary owner who has provided our team with invaluable support, inspiration and security, along with critical operational synergy,” Light said. “No subsidy is required.”
Point Loma Nazarene University’s Dean Nelson, the veteran local newspaper observer, wouldn’t comment on the profitability assertion.
But Wednesday, Nelson noted that the influence of the print version of any journalism “peaked a while ago and is on the decline everywhere in the world.”
He said subscriptions to The New York Times and The Atlantic, a monthly magazine, are way up, but not for the print versions.
“So I don’t see this as the end of the world for journalism,” Nelson said. “It may be the slow end of the world for print journalism, but then again maybe not. People predicted the end of physical books a long time ago. Physical books are still selling well, despite the predictions.”
He noted how the COVID pandemic has accelerated declines in ads in print media — “because no one wanted to pay for advertising when what they were advertising had to shut down.”
Nelson echoed Light on the need for a digital transition.
“The news media in general have needed a new business model for a long time,” Nelson said via email. “The old model, where it relied primarily on print advertising, no longer works. Moving to the digital world is the only option right now.”
The result would be fewer employees, however, he said.
“Will it be profitable long-term as a business model? No one knows,” he said. “Will there be more changes in the future? Most definitely yes. Will local journalism suffer because there are fewer reporters, editors and photographers? Absolutely yes.”
Don Bauder, the former U-T business editor who later covered U-T circulation declines for the San Diego Reader, said that in 2015 the Union-Tribune’s paid print circulation was 164,532, down 12.9% from the previous year.
“In 2016, it continued its decline, down 12.4% to 144,085. In 2017, it dropped to 121,321 and in 2018 it went down to 100,666,” Bauder said from his home in Colorado.
“Daily newspapers across the country are having problems, particularly with print editions,” he noted. “When the newspaper chain McClatchy filed for bankruptcy on February 14 of this year, Pew Research Center reported that U.S. newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940, the first year such data were recorded.”
Newspaper revenues plunged 62% between 2008 and 2018, he said Pew reported. Over that period, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers plummeted by 47%, from 71,000 workers to 38,000.
“Nonetheless, 71% of U.S. adults believe their local news media are doing well financially, according to Pew,” Bauder said via email.
He also took notice of a chilling development:
“The New York Times reported that as newspapers decline, propaganda sites — financed by Republican, Democratic, mainly conservative and corporate public relations groups — have sprouted up to replace [local] news. The Times tallied 1,300 such sites in all 50 states.”
In the recession-hit year of 2009, Bauder reported in the San Diego Reader that U-T circulation had gone to 242,705 from 269,820 over a six-month period, a decline of 10%.
“The U-T is ranked 24th among the top 25 metro dailies (including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today),” Bauder wrote. “The Sunday U-T declined 9.6% to 309,571. The paper’s Sunday street sales have been among the worst U.S. newspapers for some time.”
Ten years earlier — in May 1999 — James Kelleher wrote in the Reader that U-T president and CEO Gene Bell hoped by 2002 to boost daily sales of the paper to 400,000 from 380,000 and Sunday sales to 500,000 from 455,000.
“Bell and his management team [turned] the drive into the paper’s new organizing principle, circulating a six-page mission statement to employees, building special suggestion boxes around the office, handing out coffee mugs emblazoned with the campaign slogans, and appointing steering committees to get the ball rolling,” the Reader said.
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