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Kevin Slimp

Newspapers that reduced page count over the past three years reported signifi cantly lower overall health than other newspapers.

Survey says: Papers’ page counts correlate with their bottom lines

There is a rule of thumb that almost always proves to be true at newspaper conventions: Attendance drops drastically on Saturday morning.

There are plenty of theories on the subject, from “too much fun on Friday night” to “heading home to be with the kids.”

Whatever the cause, you can imagine my surprise when I walked into a room in Des Moines, Iowa, two days ago and realized that it would be necessary to add chairs. Honestly, I didn’t expect many folks to show up for a Saturday morning session at which we would primarily be looking at numbers, but show up they did.

The topic was “What’s Really Going on in the Newspaper Industry.” My plan was to discuss results from my most recent survey, completed only days before the Des Moines conference. It was obvious those attending really wanted to know my thoughts on that topic.

After completing a major survey, I attempt to discuss one or two findings in each of my subsequent columns for newspaper industry readers until we have covered the most relevant findings. As with previous studies, there is enough information to write books about the state of the industry, but I will stick to the most
interesting discoveries.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking discussion in Des Moines revolved around newspaper ownership.
Before sharing survey results, I gave the group a little quiz. Their mission was to guess how North American newspaper publishers responded to the survey, and not to answer the questions in the survey as they related to their own newspapers.

When asked to guess the percentage of newspapers that are independent, not related to any group or other newspapers, most of those in attendance guessed the number would be pretty low. They were surprised to learn that 53 percent of newspapers in the United States and Canada are independent, without any
relationship to even a small group.

I found that most interesting, because most of the folks in the room were from independent publications, not part of a larger group. Yet they assume that most of their brethren are from large newspaper groups. And as I discussed in a previous column, independent papers reported better health and more growth than those that are part of a group.

There were several other questions to which most publishers guessed their papers were different from most others. When the numbers are broken down, however, we find that ownership plays a bigger role than
anything else in determining how newspapers respond. Most independent papers respond very similarly to each other to most questions, just as most small, medium and large group newspapers do to each other.

Today, I would like to focus on one interesting correlation: page count vs. newspaper health. Most newspa-pers, 53 percent, responded that their page count was relatively unchanged from three years ago. That is 20 percentage points higher than the number that reduced the number of pages during the past three years.

Although 33 percent reported fewer pages, 12 percent answered that they have increased the number of pages.

We could argue all day whether newspapers are healthier as a result of having more pages, or whether healthier papers produce more pages because they are in better shape. I would guess that, as in most topics of disagreement, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

There is, however, no doubt that newspapers that report a higher page count than three years ago also
report significantly increased health during those same years. An astounding 81 percent of newspapers that increased the number of pages report better overall health than three years ago.

That figure is even more amazing when compared to newspapers with decreased page counts those same years. Of those, only 17 percent report improved health during the same period.

Among the largest group, made up of papers that report the same number of pages as three years ago, 38 percent indicate improved health since 2013.

This discussion could easily turn into a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conversation. I would suggest that there are enough responses to persuade me that one of the indicators of newspaper health is page count compared to previous years.

For some newspapers, decreasing the number of pages and staff members is a sure way to improve the
bottom line. But if these 859 publishers and other newspaper executives can be believed, decreasing the number of pages has a high chance of leading to diminished health, rather than increased profits.

Kevin Slimp is director of the Institute of Newspaper Technology. Email questions to him at kevin@kevinslimp.com.

POSTED 3/17/16


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