By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
’Tis the season…for newspapers to file their annual forms with the U.S. Postal Service disclosing how many copies they sold over the last 12 months. And once again, the numbers submitted by Florida newspapers are grim.
Newspapers make a living sticking their noses into other people’s business, yet they can be notoriously close-mouthed when it comes to talking candidly about their business. Early every autumn, however, newspapers across the nation disclose their all-important circulation numbers in what are called a Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation.
Daily newspapers use independent carriers to deliver most of their papers. But newspapers that also use the Post Office to deliver copies must file PS Form 3526 to remain eligible for cheaper periodical mailing permits. Editors or publishers who furnish false or misleading information, or omit requested information, can face criminal sanctions, including fines and imprisonment, and/or civil penalties.
Florida Bulldog used the Freedom of Information Act to request the forms filed by 20 of the largest Florida newspapers since 2015. It took the Postal Service a year and two FOIA requests to mostly supply them.
What those statements and additional reporting reveal isn’t pretty. Almost across the board, Florida newspapers endured serious circulation erosion in 2017.
Seven daily papers suffered three-year declines of 27 percent or more, including: the Bradenton Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Florida Times-Union, Ocala Star Banner, Orlando Sentinel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. In 2018, double-digit drops continued at Bradenton, El Nuevo and Orlando. Circulation numbers for 2018 were not available for the Times-Union, Star Banner or the Herald-Tribune.
From 2015-2017, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel had a 27 percent circulation decline for its Monday through Saturday papers to 75,320. Sunday newspaper sales declined 16.7 percent to 155,105. Numbers for 2018 were not available.
The Miami Herald slumped 24 percent during those same three years. In 2018, however, it reported that its seven-day circulation dropped another 20 percent to a shocking 53,141.
Nine years ago, the Herald reported that its average paid distribution was 249,024 on Sunday and 163,710 Monday through Saturday.
“To see the numbers slide that way is very disheartening,” said University of Miami journalism professor Sam Terilli, a former general counsel to and editorial board member of The Miami Herald.
Florida’s sagging numbers are particularly disturbing when contrasted with recent findings by the Pew Research Center. In a June report, Pew estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) “in 2017 was 31 million for weekday and 34 million for Sunday, down 11% and 10% respectively, from the previous year.
“Declines were highest in print circulation: Weekday print circulation decreased 11 percent and Sunday circulation decreased 10 %.”
Among 16 Florida newspapers whose numbers could be obtained, overall print circulation nose-dived 13.9 percent between 2016 and 2017.
The only exceptions to the three-year downward trend in Florida were the Gainesville Sun, which grew nearly five percent last year to more than 27,000 sales, and the Tampa Bay Times, the state’s biggest newspaper. The Times reversed years of declining numbers in 2017 when it reported a circulation jump from 187,000 in 2016 to 337,000. The reason: in 2016 the Times bought and shuttered the competing Tampa Tribune.
But the bad circulation news has returned to the paper known until 2012 as the St. Petersburg Times. Earlier this month, the Times released to Florida Bulldog the Statement of Ownership form filed Sept. 21 by Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. It reported that paid newspaper circulation backslid to 293,000. Paid electronic copies remained flat at less than 4,000.
Through a spokeswoman, the Times declined to discuss the size of its newsroom.
University of Florida journalism professor Mike Foley spent 30 years at the Times before retiring in 1999. His positions included city editor, managing editor, executive editor and vice president. As executive editor in the late 1980s he presided over a newsroom staff of 420 and a budget in excess of $20 million.
“Things have changed drastically,” Foley said. “As far as the future for newspapers in a print form … I’m 72 years old and my students who are 50 years younger don’t read newspapers. They’re on Facebook.”
To make matters worse for the Times, since June 2015 the Times Publishing Company and its owner, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, have been hit with more than $70 million in property liens filed in Pinellas County by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The liens state that Times Publishing and Poynter “failed to make contributions to the pension plan required” under the Internal Revenue Code.
Today, four national publishers – GateHouse Media/New Media Investment Group, Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune Publishing – own nearly all of the major Florida papers. The Times and the much smaller Key West Citizen (acquired Sept. 1 by Easton, Md.-based Adams Publishing Group) are exceptions.
The capital city’s still-influential newspaper, Gannett’s Tallahassee Democrat, experienced yet another drop in paid circulation in 2018, to just 18,825 copies – a nearly 14 percent decline from 2017.
The Miami Herald
In South Florida, McClatchy’s Miami Herald suffered its worst single-year decline in newspaper sales in at least a decade. On Sept. 30, the once-mighty Herald reported that its seven-day paid circulation for the preceding 12 months had dwindled to 53,141 – a nearly 40 percent decline since 2015.
Circulation at El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister publication, shrank 42 percent between 2015 and 2018, according to its Sept. 26 filing. Total paid distribution this year was 25,491.
The Miami Herald recouped some of those lost sales online. In 2018 it reported paid electronic copies of 10,679 – a decrease of 1,268 from 2017. But selling printed newspapers is more lucrative than selling paid electronic copies. Besides the fact that advertisements printed in the paper fetch a lot more than online ads, seven-day home delivery for a year costs about $175 today. Two months of unlimited digital access are $1; one year costs $49.99.
El Nuevo’s paid electronic copies were just 1,230.
Miami Herald president and publisher Alexandra Villoch referred a request for comment to a spokeswoman for California-based McClatchy.
Jeanne Segal would not comment on whether publicly-traded McClatchy has a plan to halt the ongoing circulation decline, or say how many newsroom employees there are at the Herald after years of layoffs, or disclose how much revenue digital subscriptions generated this year.
“Currently, McClatchy is observing the ‘quiet period’ and cannot under SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] rules make projections,” she said in an email. The quiet period is the time between the end of the financial quarter and the release of earnings for that quarter when management is not to discuss business with analysts or investors.
‘In the public interest’
Segal, however, said, “The Herald continues to be dedicated to journalism in the public interest that is essential to the communities we serve. We reach more people today than we ever have before.”
She added that the Herald’s investigative team “is as large as it has been for years” and that the paper won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes last year – for editorial cartooning and for explanatory reporting shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for coverage of the Panama Papers scandal.
“This speaks to having the right talent and focus. It is not about the quantity of the staff, but the quality of our journalists,” Segal said.
Even so, the Herald no longer has the horses to cover much of its own back yard.
“They used to have the Hometown Herald, a 20-page broadsheet devoted to cities like Hollywood and Hallandale and Pembroke Park, and they actually had reporters writing stories and features that gave you a good sense of what was going on,” said Harry Broertjes, who retired from the Herald in 2014 after 39 years as an editor and page designer. “That was 10 years ago. Now I can read both papers [the Herald and Sun-Sentinel] and I still don’t have a good sense of what is going on in Broward.”
The Herald’s website lists 21 editors and 15 columnists. Reporters and other newsroom staff are not listed.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, owned by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, lists a directory of its complete editorial staff of 85 online. That includes 35 reporters, 27 editors, four columnists, 14 photographers and photo editors and five editorial assistants.
The Sun-Sentinel, however, no longer files Statement of Ownership forms with the Postal Service because it has no mail subscriptions. Still, at Florida Bulldog’s request, circulation director Monica Wesolowski provided average circulation numbers from 2015-2017 as reported by the company to the Alliance for Audited Media, which verifies industry claims for advertisers and others.
Those numbers show that sales of the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday newspaper slid 16.7 percent, from 186,358 in 2015 to 155,105 in 2017. Monday through Saturday circulation plunged 27 percent – from 103,283 in 2015 to 75,320 last year. Figures for print circulation in 2018 have not yet been compiled, Wesolowski said.
The Sun-Sentinel’s sale of electronic copies has increased steadily, from about 4,000 in 2015 to 10,706 last year. The Sun-Sentinel achieved those gains even though it charges its digital subscribers nearly twice as much as the Herald. Three months of unlimited digital access are free; after that the cost is $1.99 per week, or about $95 a year.
The Sun-Sentinel’s best current subscription rate for seven-day home delivery of the newspaper for 13 weeks is $64.70, or $258.80 a year. That’s about $83 more a year per subscriber than the Herald commands.
Palm Beach Post
The Palm Beach Post is South Florida’s third major daily. The Postal Service said it could only locate a statement of ownership form for 2017, but Post Audience Director Mark Sasser supplied 2018.
The Post reported seven-day newspaper circulation for 2017 was 58,723. Sales fell 11 percent to 52,130 in 2018. Meanwhile, the Post’s paid electronic copies continued to grow from 14,440 last year to 15,488 in 2018.
The Post’s subscription rate for seven-day home delivery for one month is $23.99, subsequent months are $21.44 a month. That works out to $259.83 per year. Unlimited online access is $5.99 a month or $71.88 a year.
The Post and its smaller sister, the Palm Beach Daily News (paid newspaper circulation of 2,215 in 2018), were sold to GateHouse Media in May by longtime owner Cox Enterprises, of Atlanta.
GateHouse, with a market cap of about $960 million, is the aggressive media holding company for Pittsford, NY-based New Media Investment Group (NYSE: NEWM). Since 2014, it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars gobbling up newspaper properties.
Last year, GateHouse paid a reported $120 million for Morris Publishing Group’s 11 daily newspapers in Florida and Georgia, including the Florida-Times Union in Jacksonville and the St. Augustine Record. In January 2015, it bought the Halifax Media Group (the former New York Times Regional Newspaper Group) for $280 million, acquiring 35 newspapers across the country, including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Gainesville Sun, Daytona Beach News-Journal, Lakeland Ledger, Ocala Star Banner and four other dailies across Florida.
Restructuring and big layoffs followed. In response, newsroom staff in at least three Gatehouse newspapers have reportedly voted to join the NewsGuild/Communications Workers of America union. The papers are the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Lakeland Ledger and the Florida Times-Union.
GateHouse continues to bulk up
Gatehouse/New Media now owns a dozen dailies and nine weeklies in Florida. Gatehouse continues to bulk up and now owns 145 dailies and 340 community newspapers across the U.S., making it one of the country’s largest newspaper publishers.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records show that New Media is an investment vehicle that emerged out of GateHouse’s 2013 Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At the time, it was owned by Fortress Investment Group.
New York-based Fortress, owned by Japanese giant SoftBank, no longer owns New Media, but does still control it. According to New Media’s website, it “is externally managed and advised by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm.”
GateHouse’s ongoing consolidation of Florida newspapers using Fortress’s funds has implications for both editorial policies and news coverage.
For example, Fortress is the parent company of Florida East Coast Railway and All Aboard Florida, which operates the Brightline passenger service that currently runs between Miami and West Palm Beach. Another subsidiary is New Fortress Energy, which operates a natural gas liquification plant in the Hialeah Rail Yard in Medley.
Florida Bulldog reported in August that Fortress’ FEC trains now transport for profit extremely hazardous liquified natural gas (LNG). That includes shipments from the Hialeah plant to PortMiami and Port Everglades for commercial export.
While the story was picked up on the front page of McClatchy’s Miami Herald, no GateHouse paper reported it.