I thank my lucky stars my old man threw me into the circulation department.

Not that I was extending any gratitude on bitterly cold, winter mornings, around 3, as I was making delivery runs. It's more likely I was cursing him. But my two and a half years distributing and selling copies of the Chicago Sun-Times made me understand an area vital to newspapers - an area that too often leaves most of its executives confused.

Well, confused isn't really the right word.

Truth be told, there's a bad attitude toward circulation personnel - most newspaper executives look down on them the same way some people do on minorities, the aged and the poor.

Because of this approach to a key department, newspapers' consumer sales will continue to drop.

This snobby mindset feeds this prophecy that if newspapers would just stop printing, put their entire content on the Web, maybe behind a paywall, or on a wireless, e-reader gadget, their deadwood (pun intended) costs would be eliminated and they'd be swimming in profits.

Why? Because, hey, only the smart and beautiful people - the higher ups, the reporters and editors, the ad sales folks and the computer jockeys - would be working there.

But now something is happening that no elitist newspaper executive thought was possible: The industry is gasping for air.

Affected by all

Circulation is affected by everything - from the time the press run is completed and the time editors close their pages to foul weather conditions. This makes it tedious and mundane - albeit dangerous work - especially compared with the excitement of landing a big ad, bringing down a politician or fine-tuning the digital initiative so the paper is cool with Silicon Valley types.

The industry's problems don't so much stem from the decline of print and the rise of the Internet, as they do -first and foremost - from the industry's inability to deliver an audience in a time when consumers are far more demanding.

Therefore, since much of the local audience isn't delivered with the printed product even as the paper's website is struggling to keep the readers it has - because there are 100 million or so other websites out there with their paws on the same audience - newspapers will continue to suffer, maybe even die.

We all know advertising provides the bulk of any newspaper's revenues. But securing those revenues doesn't come from just hiring the best salesperson. Indeed, a lot of them are out of work these days.

Instead, success at selling advertising starts with a serious consumer sales and distribution effort.

Ad buyers need to know everything there is to know about a newspaper's audience. How do readers interact with the paper? Where do they purchase it? Why is it relevant? How is it unique compared to papers of similar size?

This is so they can justify the ad buys made with their clients' hard-earned advertising budget.

Detailed understanding

That requires newspaper publishers to learn something they've long ignored, and that is understanding the minutest details of their consumer sales and distribution work.

It means completing home delivery runs on time - long before the sun is up - as well as placing the paper where it's easily accessible (see my June 2010 story about how this is accomplished at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette). It also means conducting in-depth market research so the paper's personnel are experts on their audience as, say, Procter & Gamble is on their consumers. You know, the people who pay the bills.

Days before filing this column, I walked into my local grocery store, where, lo and behold, for the first time since moving here about 18 months ago, there was a man, about my age, standing near the produce section selling home-delivery subscriptions of The Boston Globe.

I've sold subscriptions before and it isn't easy.

Newspaper publishers and editors should spend a few days at this task, too. It would be an enlightening, if not humbling, experience for them and an acid test of their sales skills.

No regard

As I strolled into the produce section, the man asked me if I was interested in a free Globe.

"No thank you," I said.

What I didn't tell him was that the paper had already been delivered to our house earlier that morning.

Well, not really to our house. It had been dropped off at the edge of our driveway, in a bag, around 6.

By the time I picked it up, about 6:15, after exercising at a local fitness club, the bag was covered in fumes from passing cars.

This experience always makes me ask the same question: If the newspaper was a bottle of milk and delivered in the same fashion - to the end of the driveway, where it's exposed to carbon monoxide - would I serve it to my kids?

No, of course not!

So why does the newspaper industry show so little regard for the way its products are delivered?

Is it sending a message to its readers that it's suffering from an inferiority complex or has no pride?

But back to the guy selling copies of the paper at the grocery store. My answer provided an opening.

What he should have done next is ask a follow-up question. Something along the lines of, "Why don't you want a copy of the paper?"

Sure, there's a chance I could have ignored him. But that goes hand in hand with sales people. For that matter, it goes hand in hand with being a reporter.

Or he could have asked for a few minutes of my precious time to inquire about my reading habits.

Remember circ, or else

The greater Boston market is inundated with newspapers, including the Herald, the Globe, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, Financial Times, (New York) Daily News, New York Post and a host of suburban dailies.

It's likely - given that I'm a 40-something adult - I read one of them.

In print, no less!

But the likely reason this guy didn't stop me is because he lacked the skill set to do so.

That's not meant as a slam against The Globe or this man personally. His colleagues at other newspapers suffer from the same deficiency.

If you want a future, you'd better start paying attention to the part of the paper that allows you to sell ads - the circulation department.

For that matter, you need also ask yourself a number of questions: Where else can I sell this thing? What stores aren't selling my paper but could? How do I increase - now there's a concept - my circulation numbers, not settle for another decrease like I did during the previous 10 ABC audits?

Ignore the circulation department at your peril - the promises of the Silicon Valley's new technologies notwithstanding.


Doug Page blogs and hosts "The Press Room" on newsandtech.com. He's reachable at dpagenewsandtech@gmail.com.


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