Circulation, leadership and the Godbeat

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on a major change at the paper recently:

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette executive editor Griffin Smith announced Monday that he is leaving the post effective Tuesday.

Smith, speaking to the newsroom, said there was no single factor in his resignation, adding he knew it was the “right time.” In his address to several dozen employees in the paper’s downtown headquarters, Smith thanked the staff and publisher Walter Hussman.

“It’s been a tremendous privilege to work here with him and with all of you at this newspaper,” he said.

Hussman said the paper will not hire a new executive editor for the “foreseeable future.” Managing editor David Bailey will lead the newsroom.

Bailey, who called Smith “intellectually brilliant” and a good friend, indicated he didn’t plan major changes in the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.

“It’s a really wonderful institution,” Bailey said. “It’s a wonderful institution because it takes great pains to report very accurately and very carefully and to do so with authority and credibility. I don’t think that’s something you tamper with.”

So what does that have to do with the Godbeat? Well, Frank Lockwood, the religion editor at the paper — aka Bible Belt Blogger, has some insight, having served under him for a while. He notes that Smith’s grandfather and father were also journalists and attorneys and that the grandfather was a newspaper publisher before becoming chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Frank fills in some details here:

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s executive editor announced his resignation this week after nearly 20 years of service.

Before leading Arkansas’ statewide paper, Griffin was one of the founding journalists at Texas Monthly, a writer at National Geographic (writing those great big stories that they run on Guatemala and China, for example).

He is an attorney and a former White House speech writer (for Jimmy Carter.)

Griffin is a big believer in the importance of religion coverage, a big fan of Terry Mattingly’s column and a journalist who really got religion.

While other papers were eliminating the religion beat, he remained committed to offering weekly religion pages.

And he committed resources to the religion beat, dispatching a reporter to the last two Episcopal Church triennial conventions and continuing to send reporters to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By the end, reporters from secular publications had all but disappeared at SBC gatherings, but Griffin felt it was important to cover the SBC in the Bible Belt. So the Democrat-Gazette kept sending a reporter.

Griffin found a way for my predecessor to travel to the Vatican in 2005. And, when the Pope died, she was there to cover his death and the election of Pope Benedict.

He gave big coverage to the split in the Anglican communion, instantly sensing its importance. Likewise, he understood the news value when an Episcopal diocese in northern Michigan elected a “Buddhist bishop.” Ultimately, the Democrat-Gazette was able to report that Kevin Thew Forrester had been defeated several days before the Episcopal Church made the announcement.

Griffin understands this state and its people and he has great news judgment.

Let me share some circulation figures from 1992, the year Griffin became editor here.

I hope I’ve typed all these correctly. (I used the 1994 World Almanac to get the older data.) You’ll notice a trend or two:

Standard (non-branded) print circulation statistics (Sep. 30, 1992) and March 31, 2012

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette      176,741       175,276
Detroit Free Press                        580,372      132,635
San Francisco Chronicle             556,765      165,523
Miami Herald                                404,679     167,057
St. Louis Post Dispatch               339,545      169,608
Orange County Register             332,164      162,921
Boston Herald                              330,614      103,616
Atlanta Constitution                   302,616      163,607
Fort Worth Star-Telegram        256,199       136,624
Louisville Courier-Journal       236,103       136,766
Kansas City Star                          287,119       163,697
New Orleans Times-Picayune  269,639      133,577
Baltimore Sun                             227,706       136,708
Oklahoma City Oklahoman      210,004      116,350

There are a few things worth noting. Most religion reporters these days are battling against innumerable pressures. They’re being asked to do more with much fewer resources than even a few years ago. Many editors are completely axing religion beats or failing to see the importance of having an educated reporter on that beat. When you have an editor who does see the value in the beat, it can make all the difference.

And those circulation numbers are fascinating, no?

Newspaper concept illustration via Shutterstock.

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  • Stan

    So is the point that if only all those other newspapers would hire a Godbeat reporter, they would reverse the decline in circulation? Gee, I wonder why the editors of those papers didn’t think of that.

  • Jerry

    One data point does not prove statistical correlation, of course, but it is indicative. It will be interesting to track what happens at that paper if they follow the lead of others and axe religion coverage.

  • Bill

    Yes, a statistically insignificant sample. But what we can see is that the Gazette did not hemorrhage readers as so many papers have. Why? Maybe Griffin Smith knows something the others don’t. Maybe he gets things – including religion.

    There are legions of consultants waving MBAs and flow charts telling bakery owners that if they used cheaper ingredients and made their loaves smaller they could reduce cost of production and increase revenue. Maybe Smith had an appreciation of good bread.

  • Kristen

    Are all of the other papers with declining circulation that you cite lacking a religion reporter? Just wondered how you chose those to highlight.

    When the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette “merged” after a red inkfest in the early 1990s, I am pretty sure that their combined circulation was much higher than 175K. More like 300K. Wasn’t it? So, really, not sure that the story had much to do with religion.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    If I am correct, the Democrat-Gazette has refused from the beginning to give away its print content for free online. That used to irritate me to no end. But my understanding is that the paywall has helped protect the print circulation as people who want to read the news have to pay because they can’t read the news for free.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I MAY BE wrong, but didn’t I read that newspapers now can include in its circulation stats some internet services provided by the newspapers. Which would mean, if true, that the most recent–and very low totals–are even worse concerning the print on pulp product that all newspaper totals used to solely be.

  • sari

    More than retaining a religion reporter, it sounds like the Democrat-Gazette’s editor had a good sense of what his readership desired in a paper and gave it to them, including quality coverage of religion.

    How much advertising revenue does the D-G generate relative to twenty years ago?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I MAY BE wrong, but didn’t I read that newspapers now can include in its circulation stats some internet services provided by the newspapers. Which would mean, if true, that the most recent—and very low totals—are even worse concerning the print on pulp product that all newspaper totals used to solely be.

    Newspapers can include only PAID circulation in their figures, as noted by this article.

    Not sure if Democrat-Gazette sells online-only subscriptions or if online access is a benefit offered only to print subscribers.

    As for whether online subscriptions would mean the print totals are even worse than they look, I would suspect most media orgs could care less whether I give them $10 a month for an e-edition or $10 for a dead-tree-edition as long as I subscribe. Actually, it’s cheaper to give me an e-edition than kill a tree, maintain a giant printing press and find someone to deliver the dead tree to my doorstep at 4 a.m. in the dark.

  • sari

    https://secure.arkansasonline.com/auth/forms/ipad/register.php?path=http://www.arkansasonline.com&ab=b

    Easy enough to answer. One can pay for 7 day dead tree w/internet access -or- net access alone for the same $16/mo or pay $0.99 for a 24 hour online pass.