This week the state’s largest newspaper celebrated its first birthday. The headline was sunny: “Star-Advertiser forecasts continued growth.”

Just like Civil Beat, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser is a private company so it doesn’t have to report its revenues. But it does have to tell its advertisers the size of its audience.

In May, it reported to the Audit Bureau of Circulations that its circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 was 119,186 daily and 132,281 on Sundays, lower than the numbers used in its story. (The story says its average circulation is 124,000 daily and 139,000 Sunday.)

Given that the paper touts its “continued growth,” I thought it might be worth comparing what it says about its circulation today with what we know from the past.

Pacific Business News helpfully reported recently that the Honolulu Advertiser, the clearly dominant paper before the Star-Bulletin purchased it, said its circulation for the same period ending March 31, 2008 was 140,331 daily and 159,276 Sunday.

In calculating trends, let’s not consider any circulation for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the weaker of the two local papers when there were still two, and one whose circulation numbers weren’t audited.1

The decline in daily circulation over the past three years would be 15 percent. As for Sunday, the decline would be 17 percent.

Readership in Decline?

As for readership, the story is the same.

The Star-Advertiser’s story quotes its senior vice president for marketing as saying the newspaper “is read by more than a half-million Oahu adults every week.”

But the Advertiser’s 2006 media kit, still available online, shows that total readership that year was more than 700,000. The readership decline, again without taking into account the Star-Bulletin, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 percent.

Look, this isn’t out of the ordinary for the newspaper industry. It’s been a tough five years for newspapers. I’m living proof of that. The paper where I was editor and publisher shut down in 2009 because of economic woes.

Dennis Francis, the Star-Advertiser’s publisher, says, “The argument that newspapers are old media and that they are dying is overblown.”

I hope he’s right. But the circulation and readership declines we’re seeing right here in Honolulu, despite the Star-Advertiser’s print monopoly on Oahu, is typical of what’s happening across the country.

Revenues Bucking National Trend?

Newspaper have been suffering severe revenue declines nationally.

Alan Mutter writes one of the most respected blogs on the economics of the industry. In a recent post, he wrote:

Newspapers now appear to be entering the sixth year of an unprecedented collapse that has vaporized half of their principal revenues since 2006.

Mutter went on to say that “industry ad sales in all categories in the first period of 2011 were exactly half of the $11.1 billion in consolidated ad sales achieved by newspapers in the first quarter of 2006.”

I don’t have access to the Star-Advertiser’s revenue figures, but the paper reports that they’re projected to increase 3-4 percent next year.

That’s interesting given what blogger Ian Lind reported about the paper’s labor negotiations. He produced an informative account on the paper’s birthday.

Business may be good, as Francis indicates, but Lind reported the concessions the paper was seeking, including a 30 percent cut in paid holidays and a 50 percent cut in annual sick leave, along with raises totaling 7.5 percent over the next five years.

Not so good for employees. But at least they still have jobs.

Editorial Pages Contracting?

Finally, one more quick Fact Check.

A year ago, Francis welcomed people to the new newspaper on its first day in a full-page letter. He stated: “We also have expanded our editorial pages to offer more of your opinions and letters.”

It’s not clear what he was saying they had expanded from, because the Star-Bulletin and Advertiser had different editorial pages. But his initiative was one that I praised as I reviewed the paper in its early days:

“One of the best things the Star-Advertiser has done is add a third editorial page. And it has a commentary section on Saturday, which the old Advertiser didn’t. So there’s an admirable commitment there.”

In its first week, the Star-Advertiser published a three-page “Views & Voices” section Monday through Friday, two pages on Saturday and six on Sunday — a total of 23 pages.

In the most recent week before the paper’s first birthday, it published 20 pages, a 13 percent decline.

It’s understandable that the Star-Advertiser would want to paint the best picture of its first year. Any business, including Civil Beat, would do the same.

But it’s also important that the numbers add up. In this case, at least from this vantage point, they don’t.

  1. The calculations of circulation and readership decline are conservative. By comparing the Star-Advertiser just with the Honolulu Advertiser, I leave out any circulation or readership of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. It’s a given that the total, unduplicated circulation and readership of the two publications would have been higher than that of the Advertiser alone, which would mean greater declines.

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