That news you've been hearing about the decline of newspapers? It's true.

And those snarky claims that newspapers don't have a long-term strategy for survival? Unfortunately, those might also be true.This week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations released circulation data on the 25 largest newspapers. All but one -- The Wall Street Journal -- saw readership for the six-month period ending in September 2009 dramatically drop compared to the year before.

Interestingly, despite the South's rapid growth, it only has three papers on the Top 25 list -- and all saw big circulation drops:


HOUSTON CHRONICLE -- 384,419 -- (-14.24%)
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS -- 263,810 -- (-22.16%)
ST. PETERSBURG (FLA.) TIMES -- 240,147 -- (-10.70%)

The Dallas Morning News' 22+% decline was one of the biggest in the country, leading it to embrace a new revenue model increasingly pursued elsewhere: lower circulation, less ad dollars -- and higher prices for loyal subscribers.

While perhaps a short-term revenue fix, it's hard to see how the "smaller reach, more expensive" approach ends up being a good long-term strategy. New readers are the lifeblood of any media enterprise, and depending on a smaller core of long-time readers -- readers who move, lose jobs, pass away or otherwise will stop subscribing at some point -- by definition means your revenue base will shrink over time.

Editor & Publisher notes another key factor to the circulation decline:
There are several reasons as to why circulation keeps dropping, aside from former readers who have kicked the print edition to the curb. Publishers have been purposely pulling back on certain types of circulation, including hotel, employee and third-party sponsored copies. No longer are they distributing newspapers to the outer reaches of the core market.
Again: These are difficult choices, but this also seems short-sighted. Giving away free papers at the local hotel was advertising -- a way to get more eyeballs reading and interested in a newspaper. Eliminating that marketing strategy may save short-term dollars, but it also means lower reach and declining interest in the long run.

For a silver lining, the ABC also reported on the top 10 papers that showed an increase in circulation, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press (2.18% growth) and Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register (.75%). You'll note that the percentage gains are much smaller than the declines.

This shows why projects like the Freedom Journalism School, which can create a new field of in-depth reporters to fill the vacuum, are so important.