AN ARTICLE last week about a significant decline in The Sun's circulation hit many inside and outside the newspaper hard.
The Sun's average circulation declined 11.3 percent daily and 8.5 percent on Sundays in the six months from October 2004 through March 2005 compared with the same period 12 months before, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reported.
FOR THE RECORD - In the Public Editor's column in the Perspective section of yesterday's editions, Kweisi Mfume's first name was misspelled.
The Sun regrets the error.
By comparison, the average circulation for all U.S. newspapers fell 1.9 percent daily and 2.5 percent Sunday. A year ago, The Sun reported that circulation had fallen 1.1 percent daily and was up 0.1 percent Sunday.
The Sun article noted a number of reasons for the drastic decline. Indeed, because the newspaper's managers decided to eliminate low-revenue-producing programs in recent months, the 11.3 percent number was somewhat misleading.
But the article also quoted a Sun spokesman as saying the drop had nothing to do with reader dissatisfaction, and a number of readers had serious problems with that conclusion.
One reader said: "I'm shocked by these circulation numbers, but I believe reader dissatisfaction does have something to do with it. The Sun has made a lot of changes in the past few months and many think they have not been for the better."
Harvey Galinn said: "I question the comment from The Sun's spokesman about no dissatisfied readers. I am very dissatisfied with the Business section. It is a shadow of its former self."
"Not to wish you ill, but I was certainly happy to learn The Sun's circulation in down," said reader J.R. Schafer, who said he recently canceled his subscription after more than 20 years.
Despite such chilling comments, Sun executives argue that the circulation drop actually sets the stage for a solid future.
"The Sun is ahead of the curve compared to other newspapers in making tough decisions about dropping programs that affected circulation figures," said Lou Maranto, The Sun's vice president for circulation. These include curtailing free hotel and school distribution, greatly reducing the "bonus days" (in which Sunday subscribers get a free daily edition), centralizing billing and record keeping, and eliminating street hawker and some home-delivery discounts.
These changes "add to up about 80 percent of that 11.3 percent figure," Maranto said. "Most of the other U.S. newspapers have not done what we have at this point."
In light of recent circulation scandals at Newsday and The Dallas Morning News, it is important to note that The Sun was doing nothing illegal in its circulation accounting, based on ABC rules. Sun executives said they knew that making all of these changes at once could create a startlingly lower circulation number. They said they believe, however, that the current subscriber figures have bottomed out and that new practices will help circulation grow.
But, for circulation to grow, readers must be satisfied with the newspaper they receive. And, given these new numbers, it is clear that advertisers must have confidence in the newspaper's market penetration. Both are essential to The Sun's future.
That's why the substantial and positive reaction to last Sunday's front-page centerpiece, "The Road to Neunburg," is a good counterpoint. The article by foreign correspondent Todd Richissin recounts how tragic events at the end of World War II haunt the tiny Bavarian town of Neunburg.
This article followed in the footsteps of a Sun war correspondent who traveled with American troops during World War II. That reporter-photographer, Lee McCardell, documented how U.S. soldiers required the townspeople to dig up and properly bury 161 Jewish prisoners who had been massacred by Nazi SS guards.
Richissin traveled to Germany and, with an interpreter, interviewed many surviving Neunburg townspeople. The story was pegged to today's 60th anniversary of V-E Day, which marks the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
"Every once in a while The Sun publishes a story that brings back greatness. This is such a story," said reader Stuart Wechsler.
Agi Rado said: "I survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp and I know what it is like to be on a death march. This story in The Sun is amazing."
Susanna Craine said: "Many people feel saturated by Holocaust-related books and articles, but this story was fresh and new. It was terrific."
Richissin and foreign editor Robert Ruby recognized that writing about these events required more than the usual amount of sensitivity. "I would have guessed that some readers might be offended by quotes from some townspeople questioning the actions of the U.S. soldiers," Richissin said. "But honest reporting called for raising the issue, in their voices, but not dwelling on it."
Noting such successful "enterprise" stories - there have been a number recently - doesn't mean the newspaper is firing on all cylinders. There have been recent drops, such as a Washington Post scoop on problems at the Baltimore NAACP headquarters when it was led by Kwesi Mfume, currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
The circulation decline is a serious issue. Reader dissatisfaction, exaggerated or not, is a serious issue. The Sun's performance in coming months is a very serious issue.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.