Newspaper Circulation Feels No-Call's Sting

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A recent survey of daily circulation at U.S. newspapers showed declining numbers nationwide, and newspaper industry experts blame some of the loss on the national no-call list.

In October, the no-call list completed its first year in operation, during which 65 million consumers registered. Newspapers, which long have depended on telemarketing for new subscriptions and renewals, have had to rethink their marketing strategy.

An analysis of data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations by the Newspaper Association of America found that in the six months ended Sept. 30, only one-third of U.S. dailies gained circulation. Combined average daily circulation of the 841 newspapers in the survey was 47,711,751, a 0.9 percent drop from the same period in 2003. Sunday circulation fell 1.5 percent from 2003 to 51,625,241 this year.

The no-call list influenced the decline, but just how much is uncertain, said Edward Atorino, publishing analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners, New York. The effect varies by market, with the biggest markets suffering the greatest losses.

The cost of acquiring new subscriptions has increased since the no-call list's launch, Atorino said. Newspapers have shifted to other promotion methods, including direct mail and fliers, but telemarketing is still used when applicable and legal.

The pickings for newspaper telemarketing are getting slimmer all the time. Art Farber, circulation director for the Washington Times, estimated that 52 percent to 53 percent of the telephone numbers in the paper's market are registered for the national list. Throw in the numbers on the Times' internal list of customers who specifically asked the newspaper not to call, and about 60 percent of the phone numbers in the market are off limits.

That puts pressure on the remaining 40 percent who continue to receive calls, Farber said. They're more likely to get calls, get fed up and register for the no-call list, shrinking the pool of available consumers even further.

Exact numbers regarding how much of the circulation decrease is attributable to the no-call list are unavailable, said John Murray, vice president of circulation marketing for the NAA. But the effect is real. In an April survey of 265 dailies by the NAA, 44 percent reported declines of 15 percent or more in telemarketing sales.

"That is substantial," Murray said. "The question is, how well are we developing other sources?"

In the past three years, newspapers have tried to reduce their reliance on telemarketing for circulation, Farber said, with mixed results.

"The reality is, as much as they say they're moving away from telemarketing, it's still the lion's share," Farber said. "If they want to be honest, they'll say 75 to 80 percent of their new starts are coming from telemarketing."

Among the alternatives are intercept marketing, such as kiosks in retail locations, and door-to-door marketing, which is making a comeback, Murray said.

Newspapers are getting better at direct response marketing, including direct mail. DRTV and radio are available mainly to the top 5 percent of the nation's largest newspapers, not due to cost but because smaller newspapers lack the staff and expertise to execute campaigns in these media.

Telemarketing will remain a mainstay and continue producing results, Murray said. The biggest effect of the no-call list may be that it forces newspapers to discard mass sequential-dialing campaigns and adopt a more sophisticated approach.

Increased use of targeted data and offers, as well as the implementation of multichannel telemarketing-mail campaigns, will increase close rates and prevent new subscriber rates from declining as drastically as some expect, Murray said. Though these strategies sound simple, newspapers have not employed them in the past.

Increasing use of recurring-payment plans -- negative-option programs that renew subscriptions automatically unless subscribers cancel -- also is helping increase retention, Murray said.


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