Newspaper print circulation is down about half in last ten years
I did a couple of posts back in 2012 and 2013 about newspaper print circulation at major newspapers, compared to 2004. Seeing last year’s circulation figures made me curious about how things stand at the ten year mark. Here are the results:
|Newspaper||2004||2012||2014||+/- %, 10 years||+/- %, 2 years|
|NY Daily News||712671||389270||313178||-56.06%||-19.55%|
|Dallas Morning News||528379||345342||172690||-67.32%||-49.99%|
|Tampa Bay Times||348502||299393||217597||-37.56%||-27.32%|
As I explained in the previous posts, I focus on print circulation because, for major newspapers, that’s where most of the money comes from. Newspapers do get money from the web, of course. However, most of them have minimal web-only subscription revenue, and their advertising dollars on the web are only about 15% of their print advertising revenues and growing slowly according to Pew Research. That same report shows that overall advertising revenue (including online advertising) is down just a bit over 50% for the 2004-2013 period.
I ignore the web “circulation” numbers touted by newspapers, because they’re meaningless without a complete explanation of how they were measured. Unique visitors for the year? Well, people have multiple computers, and they clear their browser cache sometimes. Even when an explanation is given, those numbers can be gamed in various ways. The money is what counts, and newspapers have struggled to increase the amount of money they get from web publication over the last six or eight years. There’s no indication they’ll solve that problem.
Doing a bit of math on the above numbers, the drop in the aggregate circulation of these newspapers combined from 2004 to 2014 is just over 50%. Aggregate drop from 2012 to 2014 is about 20%.
Many dissipative phenomena in the real world have an approximate exponential decay shape to the graph. That is, the newspapers might lose, say, 10% of their readers each year, but that 10% is a lower number each year, so the decrease flattens out in actual counted numbers. That’s my best guess for the near term future of circulation for major newspapers.
However, dropping revenue also affects quality. This hit my hometown newspaper, the Tennessean, at least ten years ago. You could see it exposed unambiguously in grammatical and printing errors. I also think the quality of the articles dropped to the point that I wasn’t willing to invest time in reading them, but that’s a more subjective judgment. Except for local events such a major water outage last year, I don’t pay any attention to the Tennessean.
When that happens, the days of a newspaper are numbered. They enter a vicious cycle in which more people drop them because of their marginal or poor quality, and that erodes revenues further, which erodes quality further, and so on.
There’s no obvious way to reverse any of that, no matter how innovative they get on the web. Advertising revenue for want ads isn’t coming back; Craigslist and its smaller relatives have captured it and I see no way for newspapers to get it back. Not even middle aged people get newspapers for movie ads anymore because they can find anything they want to know on their phones immediately. Retail advertising continues to suffer as retail closures start to impact suburbia, and dead malls continue to pile up.
So, with that dead horse beaten to a pulp, what are the likely effects outside the newsrooms?
Right now, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue to have an outsize influence on political thinking. I don’t think either one is going to vanish any time soon. The left will no doubt find the Times so indispensible that it will find the money somewhere to keep the lefty editorial outrage and the slanted reporting pouring out of Times Square and setting the agenda for TV news reporting. The Post, under Bezos, seems to be becoming marginally more balanced, which is a good thing.
The Wall Street Journal maintains a decent hold on center-right readers, though it’s a lot more center than right these days. As the only major newspaper I read with any frequency (couple of times a month) I see the quality dropping. But for now it seems financially stable.
Almost all the others, though, are in trouble. I have to wonder if the recent successes of the GOP at the state and local levels have not been facilitated to some extent by the lack of effective opposition from the typically-liberal local newspapers. The fewer people who read them, the less able they are to torpedo Republicans and shield Democrats.
Naturally, you don’t see a lot of reporting on all this in the media. They don’t have much interest in exposing their own weakness. The reporting they do typically touts “total circulation”, which means they get to include their gamed web numbers. USA Today also started an insert program with a lot of local newspapers, so they like to pretend that this is equivalent to regular circulation. It’s rare for any of them to make their print declines front and center.
The main lesson here is that limited government types can afford to stand up to these biased media types more each year. I think that’s more true at the local level right now, but I also think there are a lot of people out there hungry to see the left-liberal twits of the major national newspapers put in their place as well.
*** Update 5 April 2015 ***
It occurs to me that, if the decay in readership of major newspapers is really a bit similar to exponential decay processes such as radioactive decay, then ten years would be the half life of newspaper readership. We might then use that half-life as a rough-and-ready estimator for future declines. It would suggest that by 2024, the newspapers will have lost around 50% of the remaining readers, and be at 25% of their 2004 readership.
Naturally, there are too many real-world factors to put much confidence in such an estimate, mainly because of the “death spiral” end game for such businesses. But it’s still an interesting first cut way to think about it, and it might help us detect the death spiral start point.