Circulation drop adds to gulf between haves and have-nots
By Michael Lewis
As fewer media provide vital local news, a gulf is widening between the informed and the uninformed, the information haves and the have-nots.
That is about to create a vast group of second-class citizens who, frank-ly, don't know what they don't know. That's bad for our community, bad for our democracy, bad for our economy.
As Miami Today marks 30 years of tailoring news to a niche, the needs that led us to publish in the first place are growing, while real news content the rest of the public gets diminishes daily.
Before we began publishing, executives told us they didn't need a new newspaper because they got all the news. But they didn't, because it wasn't all being reported. When we subsequently printed what no others had, we found a growing market.
The need remains for exclusive reports heavy on facts but without an agenda. Our readers are educated, 97% college and 45% grad school. They're powerful, 77% managerial and up. Education and power make readers — and we're tailored to that audience and its needs.
Who else but Miami Today reports on committees where issues are debated, filming in Miami, the urban core that we've detailed for 30 years, efforts to build employment, or chamber of commerce activity? We devote more space to these than anyone else.
I made these observations last week to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which invited me to discuss our first 30 years and St. Thomas University to talk about its first 50.
I told of my concern: that we're headed for a great divide between those who are current on news that affects them and use that knowledge, and those who are left behind.
Those remarks, I knew, could ruffle feathers. While I cited the Miami Herald by name just once — its beliefs in 1977 that created a market opening for us — I did lament the decline of the urban daily press.
I expected the Herald to resent that I cited news gaps. You can, after all, debate how well news is reported. In the end, readers vote with their eyeballs.
But it wasn't pride in news that led David Landsberg, the Herald's publisher, to write to chamber members the next day that the facts I stated were "incorrect" — though he cited neither my full name and title nor Miami Today. He was debating how much Herald circulation had declined.
Let me quote exactly what I told the chamber: "A newspaper that then  had nearly a half million circulation is now 100,000; one of 80,000 circulation is long gone."
The departed newspaper is the Miami News. The other, as Mr. Landsberg surmised, is the Miami Herald.
If the facts were "incorrect," as he said, there is a good reason: I took them from the pages of the Miami Herald.
Each October, the postal service requires newspapers to swear in print detailed circulation, including the prior year's average.
In 1985, the Herald swore its total daily printed distribution had averaged 447,047. On Oct. 8 this year the Herald reported a combined paid and requested circulation average of 103,608 for the prior year. By the issue nearest the reporting date, the Herald's sworn circulation had fallen further, to just 92,781.
You can do the arithmetic.
This year's report, right down to the 92,781, states at the bottom of the form: "I certify that all the information furnished on this form is true and complete." It's signed by David Landsberg.
I did consider one other item: a Nov. 1 Miami Herald article headlined "Newspaper circulation holds steady" nationally. That report noted "The Miami Herald posted weekday circulation figures of 135,532 (about 25% of that in the digital edition), a 15% decrease over the same period in 2011."
Miami Today in its October postal report swore an annual distribution of 28,885 and for the most recent issue 29,013. Readership in print and digitally, including multiple readers for some printed copies, tops 100,000.
When Mr. Landsberg wrote "Mr. Lewis insinuated that his publication reaches the same number of people that we do," perhaps he wasn't listening — or wasn't there. And he ignores a key fact: I was citing newspaper circulation. I made it clear, just as I note it above. He cites all sorts of numbers but doesn't use the word "circulation" once in his letter. Are the "circulation" figures that the Herald swore to incorrect?
I made very clear that Miami Today is a niche newspaper serving a limited market. We can't be the Miami Herald and, frankly, don't want to be, because the scattershot approach in news and circulation is not destined to thrive.
Our niche, as I told the chamber, is where future readers are. The readers will be in high-level jobs. They will get farther ahead because they read and they know.
What so-called news, I asked, will the others get?
Tweets about fictitious events like 3 feet of water in the New York Stock Exchange during Hurricane Sandy. Snippets of TV crime, disaster, weather and celebrities.
Several national newspapers will continue to report well on the nation and the globe, I told the chamber, but what credible, thorough sources will you find for local events that can vitally affect your life and business? And, will you get that news in time to alter outcomes?
Knowing the source and who vetted it is key. Who will vet news for importance and credibility when newspaper gatekeepers are gone? Don't forget, I said, the vast majority of real and important news comes only via known news professionals.
That's the news that executives act upon and citizens need to participate in public affairs.
So, what will be left in Miami when more printed press goes away, and with it reporters and editors who serve the people who are in danger of slipping into the realm of second-class, information-starved citizens?
Interestingly, as readers defect from an urban press that has lost touch, many small-city newspapers thrive. They know what their readers need.
That's why Miami Today emulates a small-town paper within a cosmopolis: we know our audience and provide essentials about how the place works. Diverse as Miami is, the top levels have similar needs.
The Power of the Press once was influence, and to some extent it still is.
But more important is the power of respect as a needed, trusted news vehicle. Nonprofits like the Miami-based Knight Foundation are hunting for ways to provide that local information to those who will otherwise slip into a second-class status.
We're not cheering as Mr. Landsberg swears just 92,781 print circulation in a county of more than 2.5 million people. It's not any better news to us than it is to him, because fewer and fewer readers here are informed of local events that affect their lives.
Lamentably, the day of the mass press has passed. That endangers community and democracy.
Without some viable replacement, larger and larger segments of any metropolis — including Miami — are destined to be information-poor, second-class citizens.
Most likely, a series of niche products like Miami Today, each serving a specific market segment with tailored local news — some in print, some digitally — will become the new choices to fill that yawning information gap.
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