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Bristol Herald Courier Circulation Continues to Fall Dramatically

The Bristol Herald Courier's Circulation
Chart by: Picasa ™ Web Albums (used with permission)

According to recent industry numbers, the daily circulation of the Bristol Herald Courier has fallen from nearly 41,000 in 2001 to just over 32,000 today, and the Sunday issue has fallen from 43,000 to less than 35,000 for the same time period. Ad revenues have reportedly followed this trend, but the Bristol Herald Courier has declined to supply those figures.

Media General, the Richmond-based publisher of the Bristol Herald Courier and several other newspapers, has seen its stock value over the past five years drop from $70.00 per share to three dollars, a decline of nearly 95%, and recently announced the layoff of hundreds of employees and the freezing of retirement benefits. The publishing unit of Media General saw a decrease in ad revenue to the tune of 39% over the past year.

Many subscribers to the Bristol Herald Courier report that they dropped the paper due to what they term as the negative path the 130-year-old publication has taken during the past few years. They also report that after calling the circulation desk (888-228-2098) to cancel their subscription, they are offered a host of incentives, discounts, and prizes to stay on board. Even determined disgruntled subscribers, who insist upon getting out, report that they receive the paper unsolicited and free for several months after cancellation.

Given the general decline of print media nationwide, is the Bristol Herald Courier just a victim of a larger trend, or is it particularly hurt by its new management approach?

Compared to the Kingsport Times-News, the region's largest daily paper, the Bristol paper dropped in daily circulation by nearly 14% over the past twelve months, while the Kingsport Times-News lost a relatively small 2% according to industry reports. The former editor of the Bristol Herald, J. Todd Foster, referred to his rival as the "Kingsport Slimes News" just over a year ago, perhaps proving that at least in the mountains, such personal attacks are not rewarded.

Foster's attempt at a joke by referencing the Virginia Tech tragedy also seemed to backfire after he published this comment in an editorial piece: "If coach Phil ever shoots up the UT locker room, we'll be all over him like one of Vick's pit-bulls on a poodle."

During a controversy regarding the Dominion power plant, a participant in a group sit-down with the Bristol Herald editorial board had this to say about the paper after his experience: "Foster has exploited and abused the privilege of editorial comment for his own personal satisfaction and vengeance. What a blatant misuse of his power and responsibility, and what a disservice to the readers of the Bristol Herald Courier."

In a recent multi-part front page article about an attorney who admitted to sexual misconduct with some female clients, the Bristol Herald used very graphic words rarely seen in a family newspaper and provided a link to court documents that would make Hugh Hefner blush. The paper warned young viewers not to click the link on its website because of its explicit sexual content. The odds that little fingers heeded this warning are very slim. Several readers expressed outrage over the content of those articles.

There are no statistics available to measure the direct impact, if any, of readers that are dropping the paper due to its new management direction versus the general decline in the demand for newspapers and print ads. The paper has virtually dropped out of the Dickenson and Buchanan county markets, which would explain some of the circulation reduction a couple of years back, but last year's 14% decline is hard to decipher without feedback from management.

When we asked the Bristol Herald Courier publisher if the numbers we have are correct and how did he explain the drop in circulation, he replied that we were comparing apples to oranges when it came to the Kingsport Times-News. He was invited to provide his own specific circulation numbers for the past ten years, including ad revenue and employee turnover, but he said he did not have time. We take him at his word and will publish his numbers in our next edition of Mountain Peeks if he sends them our way.

Editor's Note: If you would like to comment about this or any other article in our magazine, send your comment via email to editor@mountainpeeksmag.com or snail mail to P. O. Box 1259, St. Paul, VA 24283. You must provide us with contact information, including phone number and mailing address, before we will consider using your comments. We will not publish your phone number.

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