Free Fall for U.S. Newspapers' Circulations

There is more and more evidence that U.S. newspaper circulation has begun a possibly fatal free fall.

Beginning around 1964, daily newspapers’ print circulations in the U.S. began steadily to decline at a compound rate of approximately half a percent per year. Every year, most of the newspapers’ publishers reacted as if each year’s decline was a temporary aberration, a short-term trend that would soon reverse.

But by 1999 the rate of circulation declines began to accelerate. Daily newspapers began to suffer annual circulation declines of one to two percent. Circulation directors were quick to blame the free online publishing of the newspapers’ stories. That excuse is conveniently forgot that the U.S. newspaper industry’s own research for the past 20 years had been predicting these declines around the end of the millennium, predictions well before online publishing was even conceived.

Since 2000, those circulation declines have steadily worsened. Major newspapers lost two to four percent of their daily circulations each year. Many publishers simply blamed the recession that started in 2000, as if consumers temporarily couldn’t afford $0.25 to $0.50 per day for a subscription or single copy.

Yesterday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations gave publishers more bad news. Here is the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher‘s report:

    The Audit Bureau of Circulation released its FAS-FAX report for the six-month period ending September 2004, this afternoon, revealing another decline in overall circulation for daily newspapers and some steep drops among the largest dailies.

    Earlier today the Newspaper Association of America reported that overall daily circulation for the industry, as reflected in the new FAS-FAX, was down .9%, and Sunday circulation declined 1.5%.

    But some Top 20 papers suffered much bigger declines. The Top 20 papers suffering the steepest falls in weekday circ — more than 3% — are the San Francisco Chronicle (-6.09%), The Buffalo News and the Los Angeles Times (both -5.55%), The Arizona Republic (-4.40%), The San Diego Union-Tribune (-3.74), the San Jose Mercury News (-3.28%), The Washington Post (-3.04%), The Plain Dealer in Cleveland (-3.01%), and The Sun in Baltimore (-2.43%).

    …The true extent of the latest setbacks can be seen by analyzing one large state: New York. Of the 39 daily papers reporting figures to ABC, 34 showed losses in weekday circ and only five (three in New York City) had gains. And this doesn’t count embattled Newsday and Hoy. The Buffalo News lost over 11,000 weekday sales.

    What about in still-growing Arizona? There the tally is much closer, with four dailies losing weekday circ and three gaining. But the state’s biggest paper by far, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, dropped 19,000 copies.

    But surely Texas showed gains? Actually, 23 papers there reported declines (not counting The Dallas Morning News), and only seven posted gains. This doesn’t count the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which was all over the map: up 8,000 copies Monday-Thursday, off 6,000 on Fridays, and down 23,000 on Saturdays.

Newspaper executives tried to spin the declines as somehow normal and nothing about which anyone should worry. As Reuters reported:

    “There were some observers that might have anticipated more severe effects than these numbers would seem to suggest,” said John Sturm, the newspaper association’s president. “These numbers are fairly normal or routine, given the trends that we have seen over the past 10 or 15 years.”

    Sturm attributed the overall circulation declines largely to new national restrictions on telephone solicitations of new customers. He said the data also did not reflect many publishers’ efforts to boost readership in new ways, through online editions or through the launch of new free daily papers aimed at commuters.

Yet circulation hasn’t been boosted by those new ways, which would have been counted in the Audit Bureau of Circulation figures if possible.

In reality, American daily newspaper circulation is declining along a curve that will get even more precipitious as years progress. It will doom both print and online editions, as I explained earlier this year in Online Journalism Review.

It will doom them unless the newspaper industry initiates a crash program to focus both on why newspapers are decreasingly popular and on how to use newer (than the Web) technologies that might help reverse that unpopularity.

Unfortunately, no crash program exists industrywide. The closest is the World Association of Newspapers’ Shaping the Future of the Newspaper project, in which hardly any North American newspaper participates. The Newspaper Association of America’s own efforts, however well meaning, follow, rather than lead, the industry, as do the American Press Institute’s programs. And IFRA’s Newsplex project in South Carolina recently lost its founder and visionary, Kerry Northrup (who’s now working for IFRA as its publishing director).

One thought on “Free Fall for U.S. Newspapers' Circulations

  1. Back in circulation

    Vin Crosbie has a good analysis of the dailies’ circ decline. Like Vin, I’m very skeptical of the Reuter’s report. John Sturm’s press agent deserves a raise. Granted, I’ve had my head totally wrapped around our crazy new model for

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