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Survey responses show glimpse into the state of newspapers

This column is dedicated to anyone who publishes, writes, edits, designs, sells ads for, delivers or does anything else in the newspaper industry. You might remember that last month I mentioned a survey I’ve been doing of newspaper publishers in the United States and Canada. It’s been three weeks and, so far, more than 600 publishers have taken part in the survey. Requests to complete the survey were sent out by most newspaper associations in both countries. In addition, I sent out requests to publishers in areas where associations didn’t send out a request, so we could get an accurate idea of how things are going in our industry.

My guess, knowing that many publishers manage multiple titles, is that somewhere around 20 percent of the publishers in these countries completed the in-depth survey. That’s a pretty amazing response.

To assist in keeping the results valid, I set up the survey in such a way that only one submission would be accepted from a particular IP address. This meant that answers from only one respondent at each location would be accepted, keeping the results from being skewed.

We’re nowhere near ready to release the results, but later in this column, I’d like to share some interesting responses to the survey. I’ve gathered a group of industry and non-industry experts to sift through the results. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be digging through the responses to learn what is really going on in newspapers.

A little about the respondents:

  • 17 percent report their primary product is a free paper
  • Coincidentally, 17 percent of responses came from daily newspaper publishers and 83 percent from non-daily newspapers.
  • Not surprisingly, since most newspapers are situated in small towns and rural communities, 63 percent of survey participants come from those areas. Most of the remaining respondents came from large and mid-size metro areas.

Over the next few weeks, our group will be sifting through the responses and making notes about answers we find particularly interesting or helpful. Once we’ve had a chance to go through the answers thoroughly, I will begin sharing the information in this column and at conferences. I’m already scheduled to speak on this topic at conventions throughout Canada and the U.S. in early 2015, so chances are I will be near you at some point.

Over the past two weeks, I was able to share a couple of findings from the survey at conferences in Arizona and Indiana. Audience members were enthusiastic about the information, and many caught me afterwards or wrote me later to discuss the survey.

Some findings related to income at newspapers are simple enough to report, since they came in the form of answers to multiple choice questions. Take this one:

“For those whose primary product is paid, what percentage of your total revenue is derived from your digital/online version(s) of your primary product (through subscriptions and advertising revenue)?”

While 21 percent of publishers answered “zero” to that question, another 49 percent answered “between one and five percent” of their revenue came from these sources. Most of the remaining respondents reported between five and ten percent of their total revenue came from digital sources.

That indicates that 70 percent of newspapers receive very little, if any, revenue from the digital side of things. Contrast that with the number of papers that invest in social and digital media, which is relatively high (86 percent), and you begin to notice some interesting phenomena.

In future columns, I hope to examine in detail responses to questions about how newspapers foresee the future. A quick glance at the survey tells me that 64 percent of publishers, when answering the question, “How true is the following statement of your newspaper: My newspaper is profitable and will be for years to come,” responded that the statement is true. Another 25 percent answered that their paper is profitable, but they can’t predict the future. Ten percent report that they are having a tough year this year.

Well, there you have it. My first column related to my survey of 600 plus newspaper publishers. To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming to look over the all the responses, many of which were essay questions, and not feel a responsibility to get the information out as quickly as possible. Still, it’s going to take some time to sift through all the answers and learn what is really on the minds of our industry leaders.

I can’t wait to share comments from publishers who were given an open forum to share their thoughts about our industry and their advice for the future. This is going to be an interesting ride.

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