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Gazette circulation continues decline as parent emerges from bankruptcy 

Did you catch that story about plastic flamingos in Calhan? How about the one on a City Councilor allegedly refusing to release e-mails about medical marijuana? Surely you caught the account of homeowner association turmoil in the Woodmoor area?

No? Join the club. You're among the nearly three-quarters of El Paso County households who didn't read those stories in the Gazette's print edition.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report shows the newspaper's daily circulation — paid subscriptions for print delivery Monday through Friday — sank to 58,710 as of March 31. That count means the newspaper reached 26.75 percent of the county's households and represents a 42 percent plunge in paid circulation since 1996, when the newspaper had 101,578 subscribers.

This, despite the ABC having lowered its "paid circulation" standard. Back then, it would count only those who paid at least 50 percent of the posted price; today, it counts anyone who paid at least 1 cent.

The newspaper reported an additional 21,733 online subscriptions, many free to people who get the Sunday paper delivered. But despite the daily's attempt to push readers onto the website, paid subscriptions of the core newspaper continue to be the gold standard for advertisers, because they represent paying customers who regularly receive the product intentionally. The bag that lands in your driveway (or maybe your neighbor's driveway) still generates the vast majority of every daily's revenue.

A new day

The March figure shows the Gazette's core product circulation continues its downward spiral. Since 2000, circulation has fallen by 36 percent, and in the past three years alone, the newspaper has lost 30 percent of its paying customers, excluding web readers.

The Gazette isn't alone. Reuters reports total daily circulation of the 602 dailies reporting to the ABC fell 8.7 percent for the six months ending in March, compared to the same period last year.

Yet Gazette publisher Steve Pope proclaimed a new day dawned when its parent, Freedom Communications, Inc., owner of eight TV stations and 103 newspapers, emerged from bankruptcy last week strapped with $325 million in debt, which Freedom's flagship, the Orange County (Calif.) Register reported as "the highest debt of any newspaper company that recently has come out of reorganization."

In a letter to readers in last Sunday's Gazette, Pope said the company is "strong and ready to meet head-on the challenges of today and the future. .... We know there are many challenges ahead."

What that will look like isn't clear. Pope refused to respond to most written questions submitted by the Independent, including whether he's concerned about the circulation drop; whether he's requested more resources from Freedom to turn the Gazette around and, if so, what he asked for; what percentage of revenue he expects from gazette.com this year; and whether he and other top people at the Gazette have been given any assurances that they will be around to care.

Editorials

The only question Pope was willing to answer dealt with whether Freedom's libertarian philosophy will go, now that the chain is no longer owned by the Hoiles family, which promoted libertarian thought.

"I have not said that the Libertarian philosophy will go away," Pope writes in an e-mail. "I have said that our philosophy will remain generally conservative. I have also said we will assess our positions on an ongoing basis to make sure they are consistent with the needs of the community and supportive of a healthy future for that community and the people that make up this great region."

While the editorial philosophy has been termed strident, many Gazette editorials rank among the "most viewed" and "most commented [on]" items on its website. Changing that might not sit well with a new board that, based on members' finance and digital backgrounds, would appear to be most interested in 1) making money and 2) doing so on the Web, without the operating costs of a printing press and home delivery carriers.

One way to herd people from newsprint to electrons: A year of the actual Gazette, non-discounted, costs $204.88, compared to the virtual version at $12.

Though interim Freedom CEO Burl Osborne has said he doesn't foresee more layoffs, board chair James Dunning Jr. told the Register the board's first task is "right-sizing the organization for the business of the future."

"I don't mean lean and mean," he said, "but right-sized for the issues of running the business in the future."

Here's one possible translation: More layoffs will come as Freedom's newspapers, including the Gazette, shift more to online. Witness Hearst newspapers which, according to bloomberg.com, cut about 145 newsroom jobs at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year, leaving 20 newsroom reporters and editors to publish news on the Web. The Gazette has roughly 80 newsroom employees, down from more than 130 in the mid-1990s.

zubeck@csindy.com

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