The manual labor associated with this all-important job demands attention to details. No matter how hard the task is worked, the results are often influenced by City Hall, the weather, traffic patterns, even an editor.

This unglamorous, often tedious job, usually toiled in obscurity during the wee hours of the morning, also requires efficiency and speed so that it's completed on time.

It's not a launch pad to the executive suite. In fact, the corner office isn't even on the radar screen for the vast majority of those involved with this endeavor.

The task we're talking about is circulation, the newspaper's most important asset. It's circulation that advertisers look for when evaluating where to place their all-important marketing dollars.

If the numbers are down, you can be sure that executives, with no experience in the department, will suddenly become experts.

So it's understandable that, as October arrives, the gulps of circulation directors can be heard. The audit numbers are in, and if they've declined, they're causing a circulation director somewhere to prepare for the axe.

Responsibility

But the tragedy of newspaper circulation doesn't lie with the circulation director. Oftentimes, it's with the publisher, who might not have a clue about the most important part of the business - consumer acceptance.

The backgrounds of too many publishers include stints selling advertising or managing the newsroom and maybe, and this is a big maybe, an obligatory three weeks "observing" the circulation department.

So if numbers do decrease, all too often the answer is to fire the circulation director. If the numbers are down, there's only one person to blame. The paper's content and design can't possibly be at fault.

What the circulation director did wrong is hard to say. But it's time for a change. So out they go.

Bottom line? The relationship between a publisher and his or her circulation director might be best described as a sour marriage that's becoming worse. Or maybe it's one of those Mars-Venus things, where neither side communicates in a way that's understandable to the other.

No respect

Like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the circulation department don't get no respect.

Yet if the newspaper's higher-ups aren't paying attention to how consumers interact with the paper, why they buy it or don't buy it, as well as all of the details that can affect this vital arena - municipal ordinances, the weather, traffic patterns, the relationship with retailers selling the paper, the paper's content and design - then they deserve the results they receive.

"They (publishers) fear what they do not know and avoid learning or spending time in circulation," said Richard Masterson, a former big metro circulation executive who now owns weekly newspapers in the Chicago suburbs.

But there's another side to this story as well.

"Those (publishers) that try to understand (circulation) are road-blocked by many circulation personnel who are never clear on what is really happening," Masterson said. "Let's face it: It is not the glamorous part of newspapering."

Still, as Masterson describes them, circulation numbers are "the newspaper's report card."

"Did we as a newspaper motivate buyers?" asks Masterson. "We assume that a major news event is going to impact sales and we anticipate that by increasing the print order. But a compelling picture or story can motivate readers any given day."

Deep perspective

Understanding circulation is about knowing the paper from the consumer's perspective: how they purchase it, where it's purchased, how it's displayed and delivered, where it's sold, how it's sold, as well as how readers use the paper and any perceptions they might have of the paper they buy.

Or don't buy.

Much to the chagrin of the newsroom, a newspaper is a consumer product, meaning it serves a variety of consumer needs on any given day.

Unlike the average box of cereal, however, the paper is unique. If it fails to satisfy consumer needs one day, it has a chance to fulfill them the next.

The details of the circulation department can be mind-boggling, even mundane. But the minutiae determine whether an advertiser lays down the big money for a full-page ad - or spends money on other media.

"A newspaper is successful because it has readers who want to buy it," said Masterson. "That's why publishers need to understand circulation."

Will publishers change their attitude toward the department that's so important to attract advertisers or will they continue to ignore it at their peril?

I'm hoping for the former. But as a former circulation staffer, I'm afraid I may have to bet on the latter.

Newspaper industry observer Doug Page also podcasts for News & Tech. He worked in the circulation department of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1987 until 1990. He can be reached at dpage435@hotmail.com.

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