A stormy week for readers, Sun

November 13, 2005|By PAUL MOORE

Over the past year, The Sun has had a lot of experience reporting on disasters, natural and manmade - from terrorist attacks on the London subway system to a seemingly endless succession of devastating storms.

Last week, the paper experienced something like its own perfect storm when a computer software problem threatened the publication of an entire edition, and newspaper circulation problems were headlined a few days later.

Late-night production of The Sun's Saturday, Nov. 5 edition was disrupted by the failure of a computer program that transforms digitized newspaper pages into film used in printing.

Because the press start was delayed 4 1/2 hours, many copies of the Saturday edition were not delivered until late afternoon, and some were not delivered until the next morning, along with the Sunday edition. Thousands of readers were angry.

To make matters worse, The Sun's customer service phone system broke down as it was inundated Saturday morning with thousands of calls from customers trying unsuccessfully to find out what happened.

Two days later, fresh six-month circulation figures for American newspapers were reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

For the period from March through September of this year, national weekday newspaper circulation dropped 2.6 percent compared with the same period last year, and Sunday circulation declined 3.1 percent. The Sun's decline was 8.5 percent on weekdays and 7.8 percent on Sunday.

Actually, The Sun's circulation was up a little in the most recent six months compared with the previous half year, but that bit of good news was difficult to explain in the tangle of circulation data.

These two recent episodes offer insight into the challenges newspapers face these days.

Readers were especially frustrated on Saturday. Instead of talking with a customer service representative or hearing a voice message, they got a busy signal and no explanation of why they had not received their newspaper.

Many subscribers then called or e-mailed the newspaper's city desk and this office seeking information.

John Wilkinson said: "I have been trying for about 30 minutes to call 539-1280 to report that The Sun has not been delivered. But the number is constantly busy. This is my next to last communication with The Sun about deliveries. Want to guess what my last will be? Or does The Sun care?"

"We did not receive our paper this morning and your phone is continually ringing busy," said Ann Fischer. "How do we get our newspaper redelivered within 60 minutes if we cannot contact you?"

Most readers were in the dark until the breakdown was explained in a "To Our Readers" notice in the paper on Sunday. (Baltimoresun.com did post an explanation on Saturday.)

After the incident, Lou Maranto, The Sun's vice president for circulation, said the newspaper will upgrade its customer service phone system. "We don't want this to happen again," he said.

The newspaper's information technology department, which is responsible for the computerized editing and production of The Sun, also is reviewing its systems and is making changes.

"We have instituted a monthly test of all backup procedures to ensure that everyone is thoroughly trained," said Carol Sholes, vice president for information technology.

It often takes a crisis like last week's production and communications breakdowns to identify needed improvements. In a competitive media environment, reducing the risk of problems that jeopardize publication or customer service must have the highest priority.

Newspaper circulation has been declining for years as people get more information from the Internet, cable television and other news sources, so the latest figures did not come as a big surprise.

At The Sun, the year-over-year decline partly reflects a decision last fall to end distribution of newspapers in hotels, and another to stop selling copies to third parties that used them for promotions. The Sun and other newspapers had counted those papers as paid circulation.

Newspaper executives say the reports of declining circulation are somewhat misleading because they don't account for fast-growing readership of newspaper Web sites. But they also concede that most papers have yet to solve the puzzle of converting their Internet fans into a satisfying source of revenue. And the perception of decline is difficult to overcome.

"To H.L. Mencken's horror, news print journalism has become an inconsequential necessity for most busy Americans," said Sun reader James E. Crawford Sr. "News at a glimpse is the order of the day."

Still, there is some evidence of improvement at The Sun. Weekday circulation is up 1.4 percent in the latest reporting period compared with the previous six months. Sunday circulation also has risen in the past four months.

If these trends continue, the paper could report an actual increase in its next circulation report, which will be released in the spring.

To say the least, The Sun and other newspaper could use some good news.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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