The eleventh obvious thing: Your subscribers are dying

Here’s a newsroom exercise sure to drive a stake of fear squarely into the heart of your circulation manager:

Count the number of obituaries printed in your paper in the last year for local residents over the age of 60.

Now compare that number to your paper’s drop in circulation over the same period.

If you see a correlation, you’re probably not alone.

At least once a week, it seems like another study or survey or poll or Pew report pops up explaining the obvious: The young’uns don’t care much for the newspaper these days.

Sure, you can go all Redeye and ASAP on their asses with a tab or a pretty site that shovels the same old news into a colorful, modernized wrapper, but *tricking* young people into reading the news isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

It’s the content, stupid.

(Yes, I realize I’m throwing around quite a few early-’90s references here. Forgive me – they were formative years.)

How many 18- to 30-year-olds in your town do you think give a shit about what the city council passed or didn’t pass at Tuesday night’s meeting? It’s not that they’re not politically active — don’t make that mistake — it’s that the issues are far more interesting than you make them out to be.

Let’s put it this way: I grew up on stories, not city council meetings, so why would you tell me a city council meeting when you could tell me a story?

Will a redesigned print edition or Web site bring in the flock to read about city council meetings and legislation that your local representative floated in a press release months before it will ever hit a committee, much less the House floor?

Again, if you’re serious about staying in business, you’re going to need content that the LIVING people in your circulation area are interested in. So let’s start brainstorming: What does the younger demographic in your town need to know, and how do you frame the story so it catches their eyes?

6 thoughts on “The eleventh obvious thing: Your subscribers are dying”

  1. Here’s a different question: How many people who own property and live in your circulation area subscribe to the newspaper — and how has that number changed over time?

    I know that’s on a tangent to your question, which is about how a stagnant information product invigorates itself. I think if you combine the ideas in Gangrey’s The New Beats ( ) with Holovaty’s approach to information, you’ll get a dynamic and alive product that naturally engages readers regardless of age.


  2. @Joe – Of course – that way we end up with news sites with taxonomy as good as our blogs.

    So instead of clicking on “Local News” or even the name of a neighborhood, a story ends up with a list of tags like “DUI, alcohol, car wrecks, deaths, Boulder, news.”


  3. Hey Ryan,

    I think it goes deeper than taxonomy — there’s plenty of context that can be dynamically built around local news.

    When I click on an article about a DUI fatality in Denver, the article also displays number of DUI fatalities over the past 10 years in Denver, in the surrounding suburbs, and in Colorado. It lists the most severe ones, and it gives the number of non-fatality DUI arrests in Denver, the surrounding suburbs and Colorado.

    That’s a start — what I’m talking about is placing the story in the big picture so it’s more than just a spot news blip on the canvas of the place, it’s information woven into the whole tale of the place.


  4. @Joe –

    The next question, then, is who packages that?

    Do you do the database work once and add stories to it with tags, or does someone manually enter every one?

    For smaller papers, the more automagic, the better.

    Adding context is what “related stories” links and more taxonomy are supposed to do — on the news side.

    On the other hand, they’ll drive time-spent and page views up as well. That’s good.


  5. No doubt it’s a big project. Where do you start? Start small. Pick a thread and follow it — follow it in both directions of time, forward and back. Smaller papers would start with a smaller task, like getting all its local disaster-related photos in a database, then getting all its local disaster-related articles in a database, then breaking down those articles into disaster type, damage, location, fatalities, injuries, causes, etc.

    Starting with photos is a fun place to start because photo galleries are easy-to-digest information, and if you’ve got an adequate database-driven photo gallery tool (I’m not talking SlideShow Pro) then that’s something that can start driving traffic right away.

    Newspapers aren’t used to looking back. Newsroom resources are all pointed at what’s happening now. A handful of small online victories with archival content would help get more resources pointed at this ‘database everything’ strategy.

    One thing I’ve noticed people comment on when they look at papers from the 1970s is that the advertisements get as much attention as the articles and photos do. If you don’t have the database tools necessary to start doing serious work with old content, why not start an old-ad blog? It doesn’t take much time to scan, crop and then post something, and one of those every day or two might be a good ‘getting the feet wet’ way to approach it…

    This type of work would be something that falls in the lap of the library, news and online staffs. Library for the old stuff, news desk for the new stuff, and online for the tools and know-how.


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