Will 70,000 Subscribers Make a Rabbit Climb?

First, let’s crunch some numbers summing up the sad state of the daily newspaper business, then we’ll consider whether Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. has pulled a tree-climbing rabbit out of his hat.

In May 2019, when he committed to ending weekday newspaper delivery and publishing mostly in a digital replica for subscribers to read on an iPad provided by the newspaper, Hussman shared a story his father used to tell.

“Have you heard of the rabbit who climbed a tree?” asked the original Walter Hussman, also a newspaper publisher. “Rabbits don’t climb trees,” someone would always interject, but the elder Hussman was ready. “I know, but this one had to,” he’d reply.

Like the rabbit, the Democrat-Gazette has no choice. Climbing the tree, in the paper’s case, is staying in business as a Sunday-only printed product.

Printing thousands of daily copies and distributing them was a huge expense, and Hussman eliminated it with his digital replica. He bet boldly that enough readers would pay $36 a month for the Sunday paper and digital replica via iPad to keep the Democrat-Gazette viable as a statewide news resource.

Recent circulation figures reported to the U.S. Postal Service and published Sept. 26 in the Democrat-Gazette show that it has fewer than 70,000 subscribers, including those taking the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Just 15 years ago, in the first quarter of 2006, the Democrat-Gazette had a daily circulation of 180,661 and a Sunday run of 275,991.

The newspaper now reports a 12-month paid print and electronic circulation average of 28,613, and a total paid circulation of 64,205 for the issue closest to the filing date, Sept. 19, 2021. The newspaper listed a 12-month paid distribution average of 24,682 and a nearest-to-filing paid distribution of 60,518.

Asked to explain, Democrat-Gazette President Lynn Hamilton called some of the numbers apples and oranges. “The 24,682 number is just math, not a helpful measure of circulation performance. It’s the average number of printed copies we distributed each day during the past 12 months. Six days a week we print very few copies, no home delivery, while Sundays total 60,000-plus. The 60,518 number is total printed copies on Sunday, 9/19/21.”

In the internet age, with nearly three-quarters of all advertising dollars redirected to Facebook and YouTube and Google, newspapers have been asking subscribers to provide more of the revenue stream keeping them afloat.

At $36 a month, 60,000 readers would provide nearly $26 million in annual revenue to the Democrat-Gazette, but some observers say the numbers don’t add up. One competing Arkansas publisher even said the post office might reject the report as invalid.

But let’s say the numbers are dead on target. Has Hussman come up with his tree-climbing rabbit?

Pretty much yes, Hamilton replied, noting that Hussman’s top priority was keeping local and statewide coverage up with a newsroom staffed as well as it was before the digital revolution.

“Continued high-quality, in-depth local news coverage is sustainable at present circulation levels,” Hamilton told Arkansas Business. “Profits are meager, though. We’re looking for ways to grow circulation but don’t have a target number in mind.”

There was one apparent discrepancy Hamilton noted after being pointed to the paid-print-plus-electronic circulation numbers.

“The 28,613 number is similar to the 24,682 number noted before — a seven-day average over 12 months. “The 64,205 seems incorrect,” he said. “It appears our employee who completed the form entered an incorrect total for paid electronic copies (subscriptions that don’t include a printed edition) on 9/19/21. The form shows just 2,344 [paid electronic subscribers] but the actual number is roughly 9,000. So instead of 63,997, the correct total would have been closer to 69,500.”

The numbers are also dim at the Jonesboro Sun, which has been owned by Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Kentucky, since 2000. When the John Troutt family sold the paper that year, it had 27,899 weekday subscribers and 30,876 on Sundays. It now has just over 7,000 print and electronic subscribers, down 24% in a single year. Five years ago, its circulation was 14,522.

Then there’s the Pine Bluff Commercial, whose numbers were published in the Commercial’s section of the Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 26. The newspaper had an average daily paid circulation of 2,464, but paid circulation closest to the filing date was 1,483. In 2010, the Commercial’s Sunday circulation was nearly 10 times that, about 14,000.