( Originally Published 1916 )
COMMENTING on the slow death of a once great newspaper, which was kept alive by an apparently invincible advertising patronage, Joseph Pulitzer remarked that the first thing fa newspaper got was circulation, the last thing advertising.
In the operation of this rule he saw the coming doom of the property. Its circulation had succumbed to competition by a contemptuous failure to consider its rivals, due to the strength of the advertising columns, the management forgetting that the reader fed the advertiser and that in due season his absence would make itself known. There-fore in a live newspaper establishment circulation will always have first consideration. Mr. Pulitzer watched his circulation figures as closely as the prudent sea captain scans his barometer and was no less anxious to know why circulation went up than why i went down. This no one could ever tell him. The possessor of such certain knowledge could acquire wealth beyond even modern dreams of avarice.
There is one rule that has more certainty in it than any other and it is a paraphrase of General Nathan Bedford Forrest's formula for military success : " Git thar fustest with the mostest men."
"Get there first with the most news comes nearer insuring a lead than any other idea that ever stimulated the circulation of a newspaper. It does not cover it all, but in pursuance of such a policy the energizing of every item in a newspaper's make-up is pretty sure to follow, and with it success.
The circulation department is a growth of the last thirty years. For the century of daily newspaper making that preceded 1885, the paper found its way to the reader largely by chance. People who wanted to sell news-papers came to the offices at an early hour in the morning, bought the sheets they desired and in turn delivered them to subscribers or sold them upon the streets. The New York newsboy of the " Ragged Dick period, and of the days of the newsboys' lodging house m New York, was a vagabond kept in vaga-bondage by the precarious nature of his occupation. Waifs and strays picked up a few pennies by waylaying the passers-by early and. late and woefully exhibiting the armful of papers on which they were " stuck." In the smaller cities the carrier made his meagre living by rising every morning at 3:30 and going his rounds by dark, looking forward to the first day of the New Year as the one that would bring him temporary affluence through the sale of " the carrier's address " to his patrons.
This was usually a pretty bad poem set within a rude border and drearily reciting the troubles of the vendor. Sometimes a kindly editor or budding genius penned the rhymes with real merit. But the idea of pushing,the paper was usually beneath the dignity of the ownership. Even such a great seller of news as James Gordon Bennett, the elder, made the reader hunt for his paper.
In the evening field the carrier also controlled the distribution, such as it was, with a moderate street sale " down town."
In considering the vast distribution of the modern evening newspaper it seems incredible that this is a growth of less than thirty years, and difficult to believe that evening editions prospered in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston with circulations of from four to ten thousand as late as 1880.
The first person to take the newspaper to the reader with` system and dispatch was Victor F. Lawson, of the Chicago Daily News, who established delivery points and routes throughout the city with a thoroughness that led to an impregnable hold upon the newspaper readers of that city. There are two classes of papers—both successful—one a creation of steady routine and a regular pressure for sale; the other dealing in ideas and making the most of events. Both succeed, but the first is the easiest to produce and the most expensive to handle, for all depends upon close and systematic delivery. The reader does not seek the paper; the paper lets no possible reader escape. The Chicago News, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Kansas City Star are conspicuous examples of this type. The newspaper of ideas and expression depends more upon the passing throng and on aroused public interest. It is much more subject to fluctuations of sale than the routine type and requires far greater energy and outlay in its editorial production.
The cost of city delivery is very great, fully one-half of the return from the retailer going into the charge for delivering his sup-plies. In the majority of cases a large loss over the return is shown in white paperi which must be met by advertising revenue--in a number of instances subtracting 20 or more cents per line from this source to over-come the aggregate expense, leaving the excess on the net rate to provide the hard-earned profits.
Newspaper distribution in America is well organized only in spots. The perfection of system may be, found in France where the Paris newspapers enjoy a nationwide circulation, due to the efficiency of their agents in the cities and towns of the provinces. Paris is a centre in a small country, no part of which is well out of reach of a reasonable time for delivery. This, coupled with the fact that the Paris paper is really more of a publication than a news carrier, which extends the life of its contents, accounts for the great circulations of Le Matin, Le Petit Parisien, Le Journal and Le Petit Journal. A Paris morning newspaper of large circulation starts its presses late in the afternoon and runs continuously on various editions until 4:00 A.M.
In France, too, another factor is found, lacking in America, and that is plenty of reliable circulators willing to work for the small profit from the sale of the newspapers. A few extra francs a week will engage good service by a capable man who regards the addition to his income as a valuable asset. He can be relied upon to do his work , properly. In America for the most part the paper is at the mercy of boys who may or may not come to time; who dread the cold or wet day, or dislike early rising, and are poor collectors of money due them, and in turn fail their employers.
The rural free delivery has done much for newspaper distribution in the West, but is of little service in the East. The post-office regards second-class matter as an unprofitable burden and does not permit the carrier to deliver newspapers from addressed copies, but insists that each shall be separately wrapped and directed, thus greatly increasing the work of sorting for the rural routes. Papers can be sent in bulk to a post-office with the name of the subscriber stamped on each copy, but if meant to go out by carrier in the country, must be " singles.
Thus cost is increased and convenience vexed on a theory that if a carrier were allowed to receive papers in bulk, delivering and collecting, he might become attached to the newspaper offering the best rewards, and so operate unfairly against others.
No such difficulty exists in Germany where the post-office takes over to an extent the functions of a newsdealer, orders publications direct from the publisher, pays the charges and collects from the subscriber. This has the disadvantage of government control of circulation that might in season be applied to the crushing of an offensive sheet.
The French system of direct dealing with an agent of the publisher's own choosing is therefore the nearest to safety and good service. Of late years, with their keenness for comprehending its earning power, the Hebrew immigrants have seized the news trade with its percentage of from 25 to 40 per cent. of profit and have stabilized it to a degree, making possible the abolition of the waste of " returns " from unsold papers and giving an attention to business such as the shifting, uncertain boy could never be made to apply.
The subscriber, once the mainstay, of the newspaper, is now the least of its supporters. The papers with the largest circulations usually have the smallest subscription lists. The New York morning newspaper with the greatest output has less than 10,000 names on its mail galleys. Dailies making a specialty of financial, business or shipping news rule larger in direct relationship, but the convenience of the delivery by dealer, and the doing away with the need of advance payments, has cut out the old subscriber, who felt that he had almost a proprietary interest in his paper and at times asserted this belief most disagreeably, as for instance the one who wrote Horace Greeley, fiercely demanding that he " stop " the Tribune instantly. This Mr. Greeley meekly declined to do. No paper ever felt the wrath of the subscriber so heavily as did the founder of the Tribune. When he went bail for Jefferson Davis his weekly list was decimated ,and his daily received a curtailment from which it never rallied in his time. The indignant subscribers refused to take the paper from the post-office, and, following the custom at the period, when the postage was collected from the addressee, the P. O. sent back the unclaimed copies by the cart load.
Catering to the subscriber has therefore ceased to be a newspaper weakness. The old-fashioned publisher who lived on his mail list was in perpetual terror and often unduly influenced by the complaints of the man who sent in his remittance yearly. Now the relations are impersonal and the paper's success depends upon its command of interest, instead of opinion.
A very famous newspaper in an eastern city changed hands after a long stay as the dwindling support of an estate. From first place it had slipped to sixth in circulation. It had long followed the trend of the sub-scriber and repelled new ideas. The purchaser took a census of his 14,000 readers and found their average age was 64 years! Some radical steps reduced the average age to 34 years and multiplied the number by five !
Before the day of the modern circulation manager, no daily newspaper resorted to advertising itself, except by the annual prospectin put out through the country weeklies in return for an " exchange " at the New Year. Then, in 1891, a newspaper circulation was made almost over night by spectacular advertising. The New York Recorder, started in February of that year, acquired an excellent following through the fact that James B. Duke, with the thrill of success upon him as a tobacco merchant, seized the platforms of the elevated roads, to carry great posters, announcing the new arrival in city journalism. That the paper failed later was due not to its advertising basis, but to editorial weaknesses, following loss of interest in the property by its owners.
The circulation manager who would push his paper to success will find powerful advertising an efficient aid. Lord Northcliffe once told me that he had successfully launched six weeklies in London on varied versions of " East Lynne," using dramatic posters to herald the coming of each sheet!
The early weekly " story " papers, now eclipsed by the popular monthlies, were " lifted " by advertising. Robert Bonner, of the New York Ledger, taught the trick.
His advertisements were often a page in size and mainly reiterations of a single sentence or two. His favorite device was to buy a page in the New York Herald, letting the cost be known, with the result of a neverfailing rise. But of course he always had something to sell !
Patrick and Stephen Farrelly, the makers of the American News Company, were boys in the circulation department of the Ledger. Its office was at the corner of Spruce and William streets, New York. When Henry Ward Beecher's novel "Norwood" appeared in the Ledger, after the sensational announcements described, a line of New Yorkers reaching from Broadway and Ann Streets, and winding through the intermediary blocks would form on publication mornings, eager to secure the first copies containing the rather mediocre tale!
Mr. Artemus Ward once burlesqued Ledger advertising in this fashion:
It is the all-firedest paper ever printed.
It's the cussedest best paper in the world.
It's a moral paper.
Sold at all the corner groceries.
All of which went to the Ledger's advantage!
Some delusions in circulation departments cost the owners dear. One of these is that the dealers sell the paper, whereas the public buy. Much money has been wasted in subsidies, free stands and unsalable copies that might have gone profitably into better mat-ter and swifter deliveries. The excuse for this hideous waste of returns," meaning the taking back of papers for which there is no demand, is " representation "—a belief that the advertiser will feel that the particular gaper is not " circulated " because it is not visible on news-stands long after the selling period has passed. If the advertiser is really thinking very deeply on the subject it must occur to him that a pile of unsold papers indicates considerable lack of interest in their contents!
With a daily consumption of news print aggregating 5000 tons an average return of ten per cent. means 500 tons per day of waste, or to put it more potently the needless sacrifice of the spruce trees on fifty acres of land ! Financially it figures $20,000 a day in money loss to the press !
The successful papers in New York and a few other cities are nonreturnable, but the evil exists almost universally and is one of the greatest pilferers of newspaper earnings.
The average editor is apt to think that if his paper is not " represented " in this fashion its. circulation is being neglected. The real reason for unsold heaps is a poor paper. The managing editor of a great New York -daily, that had successfully cut off returns, complained to the manager that he was unable to get the morning edition at Fifty-ninth Street and Eighth Avenue.
" What time was it? " he was asked. " About eleven o'clock! "
Well," was the reply, " if I ever hear that you can buy this paper at that hour we'll get. a new managing editor ! "
Which epitomizes the point!