Behind the Scene
by Randy Limbird
Editor & Publisher, El Paso Scene
Twenty years ago, the El Paso Herald-Post printed its last edition after 116 years of publication. The afternoon newspaper had been kept alive for many years by a form of life support known as a joint operating agreement, which allowed the larger El Paso Times, owned by Gannett, to print, sell advertising for and distribute the Post.
By 1997 the Herald-Post had circulation had fallen to below 20,000, and the minority partner in the agreement, Scripps Howard (owner of the Post), could not stay in business without losing money. The El Paso Times then was probably printing about 65,000 copies a day (and 100,000 or more on Sunday).
So here we are two decades later, and the El Paso Times itself is teetering on that same precipice of collapse. Its daily circulation has fallen to around 23,200 — net distribution (the amount printed minus what’s returned unsold) was down to about 21,600. These numbers are based on official periodical reports that the Times is required to file each fall with the U.S. Postal Service.
The decline has accelerated in recent years — Times circulation dropped off by one-third in just the past two years. Meanwhile the newspaper has continued to lay off newsroom employees and just this month informed subscribers their rates would go up almost 20 percent.
There is nothing on the horizon that bodes well for the local newspaper, just the abyss of financial collapse. If trends continue, the Times will drop below the 20,000-circulation mark in the coming year and be in the same position the Herald-Post was in when it shut down.
I doubt the Times will ever close its door, but we may see it drop to a 6-day or 5-day-a-week publishing schedule in the near future.
Newspapers like the Times cannot make up for this decline with online products. Although the Times aggressively markets its website to both advertisers and subscribers, the gain in online revenue will not make up for the print downspin. The saying in the industry is that print dollars are replaced by digital dimes.
The print industry decline has impacted El Paso Scene as well, but not to the same degree. We still publish about 40,000 copies each month. Our average page count is two-thirds of what it was at our peak, but we’re holding steady.
Circulation is easy to maintain because we’re a free newspaper — we just have to get our papers out there for people to pick up. Our number of locations hasn’t changed either — people keep picking up the Scene as always.
Advertising is the tough part — newer businesses don’t rely on print advertising as much, preferring instead to focus on social media. We still get new advertisers nearly every issue because social media can’t match print for reaching new customers or giving them something to refer back to like a copy of the Scene can. And the drop in Times’ circulation has also driven advertisers to us.
Nevertheless, everyone should be concerned about the future of journalism in this city. No matter our opinion of the Times, the daily newspaper has always been the leader in local reporting. TV and internet sites have a long way to go to make up the gap. We can’t afford to trade the tradition of print for a digital dime’s worth of blogs and videos posted by self-serving hobby journalists.
Even if the future is digital, we need to ensure that local journalism not only holds others accountable, but itself is also accountable to the public.
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Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications.