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Why Newspaper Circulation is Really Down

According to the Newspaper Association of America, circulation fell 1.9 percent at major U.S. newspapers in the six months ending in March. When things take a turn for the worst, the first question any good diagnostician asks is, "What changed?"

Newspapers were quick to blame one change: the establishment of the National Do Not Call Registry for the decline in circulation. In 2000, telemarketing generated 43 percent of all new newspaper subscriptions sold. Last year, that figure dropped to just 31 percent. But is that the real cause of weakening circulation?

Last week, Tampa Tribune reporter Brad Smith resigned after admitting to making up parts of a story published by the newspaper. Smith was just following in the footsteps of Jack Kelley of USA Today, and Jayson Blair of the New York Times: both reporters lost their jobs after they were found to be plagiarizing and fabricating their stories. Newspaper management expressed outrage. After all, scandals involving the accuracy of newspaper reporting are bad for circulation.

Then, six months ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating reports of fraudulent circulation reporting practices in the newspaper industry. Last year, the Dallas Morning News disclosed that it had overstated its 2003 newspaper sales. Then, New York tabloid Newsday had to revise its circulation figures, acknowledging improper reporting practices. And, the Chicago Sun-Times admitted to having inflated its circulation numbers for years, and reduced its published circulation by 23 percent. Now, not only are reporters making up stories, but the newspapers themselves are inflating circulation numbers to justify charging higher advertising rates.

Newspaper circulation is falling because reporters and management are losing . And newspapers should not be surprised if employees mistrust their leaders, are ashamed of their organization's behavior, or begin to leave. Today, more than ever, leadership credibility means consistency between an organization's spoken values and its leaders' actual behavior. So even the keepers of the free press must Live By the Values They Profess.
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