Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why Sherm Frederick Is No Longer The Publisher of The R-J

I just made that groovy chart. Click on it to enlarge and look closer if you wish. It shows, in raw numbers, why former R-J publisher Sherman Frederick has been reduced to innocuous columnist and discredited political analyst.

The latest newspaper circulation data, produced by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, came out this past week, reporting the R-J's average circulation for the six-month period ending March 31.

The story here is in the Big Dipper segment of the graph:

See that ski-slope decline and sudden bounce-back? That represents what happened in the circulation snapshots taken in September 2009, March 2010, September 2010 and March 2011. The blue line is Sunday circulation and the red is average Monday-Friday circulation.

For some reason -- and, of course, I'll speculate in a moment -- the R-J shed a whopping 18 percent of its Sunday circulation between September 2009 and September 2010, the last full year of Sherm Frederick's reign. Of that, the paper lost a shocking 15 percent of its circulation in just six months!

The paper's Sunday number fell so low -- to 166,797 as of Sept 30, 2010 -- that I had to double and triple check it because I couldn't believe it. That's less than the weekday circulation from just six months earlier. It's a number that dropped the R-J's Sunday circulation to levels not seen since the early 1990s when, of course, this county had about half its current population.

Holy crap! Now, perhaps Sherman Frederick will blame his paper's bad skid on the freefalling economy, but the economy actually began its tailspin in 2008. Just look at what happened to the R-J's circulation between September 2007 and Sept 2009:

Now what was it that happened during that span? Why, oh, why would the circulation suddenly surge from its March 2009 to its September 2009 reporting periods? What was it? Gosh...I can't remember...

OH! That's right! Great, expensive journalism, which Sherman Frederick viewed throughout his tenure as unnecessary, led to a sudden spike in subscriptions and interest. The only way to read the Pulitzer-winning Las Vegas Sun in print is to buy it folded inside the Review-Journal. In the depths of the recession, the Sun handed the R-J a lovely bump that actually buffered it from the worst of the storm. It's hard to fathom any other explanation.

So what the hell happened to the R-J to see its circulation disastrously collapse between March and September last year? It's very, very hard to say. That really should have been a period of increased circulation and interest given that the state was engrossed in its most important and fascinating U.S. Senate battle, the Harry Reid-Sharron Angle clash. What, oh what, might have turned off readers?

Is that too simplistic an explanation? Sure. But there was some anecdotal evidence that Democrats at least were canceling subscriptions and were being encouraged to do so, to boot. I even took one to task because she also was supposed to be critiquing the paper for a liberal blog.

It may not be a coincidence that this dramatic decline took place over a summer when Sherm Frederick was going through a series of very significant health crises. But, really, he's not out there personally selling the papers to people, so what could have so, so wrong?

My recent interview with the R-J's editor, Michael Hengel, might shed some light. I had heard that there was a circulation gain coming in the latest reporting period, and Hengel confirmed that without giving specific numbers. He explained it thus:

We’ve been aggressively selling [the newspaper] and I think there wasn’t as much or as strong of an effort to sell it. You’ve got to market yourself, you’ve got to ask people to buy it.

In other words, for whatever reason, Frederick, uh, stopped marketing the newspaper. Could he have been distracted by his health? Sure. Could he have been so consumed in his political obsession that that also led him to neglect the fundamentals of his business? Sure.

Any which way, numbers are cold and unbiased. Sherm Frederick was canned in mid-November. Between Oct. 1 and March 31, Sunday circulation rebounded 14 percent and weekday circulation shot up 10.5 percent. That's gigantic, but there's no way to drill in and see if Sherm started some new initiative that bore this fruit. From what it sounds like, Hengel is saying the sales efforts began when he and new publisher Bob Brown took charge.

Frederick recently attacked me out of pretty much nowhere for having been prepared to cover the Las Vegas Sun's possible second Pulitzer in three years. (They were finalists which, had they not won in 2009, would have been the farthest any Vegas publication had ever gone.) After I non-responded, he took another stab at bolstering his devastating legacy with this malarkey:

First, I did not leave the Review-Journal in "grave jeopardy".

When I left the R-J after open heart surgery and prostate cancer surgery, the newspaper had financially survived the greatest recession (or was it a depression?) in our lifetimes. I don't take full credit for that. I had a stellar team with me. We were in as solid as a financial position as any newspaper in the country. Probably better.

Now, the fundamentals of the company may be sound, although you don't usually unceremoniously dump your top guys after decades when things are on the upswing. Either way, though, when you preside over tanking circulation of this magnitude, it's a big disingenuous to suggest you walked away with the ship sailing smoothly.

Sherm had played fast and loose with circulation figures before, as I pointed out a few years back. This, you see, is when and why he actually began despising me. He had told his Sunday readers at the time that the R-J had enjoyed a circulation increase when, in fact, the Sunday circulation for that period had fallen. It was his daily circulation that had posted a modest rise.

But let's look at the big picture again to see just how badly Frederick's tenure failed. I compiled this with the ABC data available going back to Sept. 2001, so we get a full decade to review:

The newspaper's Sunday circulation peaked, it seems, at 229,000 in March 2003. (At that time, the Sun was a full-service newspaper that was delivered in tandem with the R-J on the weekends but on weekdays was delivered in the afternoon.) After that, despite a massive economic, tourist and population boom, Sherm's R-J stagnated or steadily trickled down. There were two moments of upswing, when the Sun ceased to be a separate weekday daily in 2006, pushing a whole load of subscribers over to the R-J column, and then when the Sun got its Pulitzer. On each occasion, Sherman Frederick's R-J failed to hold on to these externally-gotten gains.

In his recent diatribe against me, Frederick suggested that my media criticism is predictable: R-J bad, Sun good. Of course, that's blatantly untrue. I believe the R-J had several tremendous reporters and writers who deserve a bigger audience, more resources and stability that comes from leadership that embraces change and new media.

So the good news is, they're on their way. The bad news, for Sad Shermy, is that the numbers don't lie and his tenure was a bust.


detroit1051 said...

Sherm must be counting the days until you leave for Ann Arbor.

Brogan Family said...

Add a line for population of clark county and use the second y axis to show the increase.....or normalize circulation to population (divide circulation by population of clark county at the time to show penetration decline)...the other thing you need to show is visitors to I know how you feel about the site, but some of the decrease is undoubtedly a shift of readers to online.

Unknown said...

You will be greatly missed while enjoying the Michigan winter and can only hope you'll hurry back.
FWIW, my subscription to the RJ ran out last year and I went on strike, refusing to renew until after they stopped efforts to increase subscription rates by exhorbitant amounts nearly double the former yearly rate. Shortly after the RJ changes, circulation called again and matched the previous rate and I returned to the analog edition. Don't know whose decisions affected the pricing, just that in my case, and maybe many others, the lower pricing seems to have coincided with increased print circulation. Since advertisers buy audience, circulation is what matters. Now, if they can improve the commitment to what you term "expensive" journalism we will all benefit. They have a few very fine writers there who deserve the opportunity to do great journalism.
Travel safe.

Anonymous said...

Can't really argue with that analysis. I think a lot of folks got fed up with Sherm's obsession with bashing Harry Reid. But the Sun's willingness to spend money on journalism is what sets it apart from the R-J. Also, I hear that former editor turned column writer (and fellow Reid basher) Tom Mitchell is out completely now.

Anonymous said...

Since Shermageddon continued into November, the "ski-slope decline" is certainly deeper -- and the rebound much more dramatic -- even than it appears on the graph, probably cratering somewhere around Halloween. God only knows exactly where the circulation numbers bottomed out but an inside source told me the R-J had picked up 2K subscriptions within the first few weeks after Frederick's departure.

David McKee