Free Markets, Free People

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
USA Today 2192098 1627526 1156871 -47.23% -28.92%
WSJ 2101017 1499204 1256292 -40.21% -16.20%
NYT 1119027 717513 680905 -39.15% -5.10%
LA Times 983727 489792 405213 -58.81% -17.27%
Wash Post 760034 434693 399757 -47.40% -8.04%
NY Daily News 712671 389270 313178 -56.06% -19.55%
NY Post 642844 344755 261312 -59.35% -24.20%
Chicago Tribune 603315 388848 324620 -46.19% -16.52%
Denver Post 340169 236223 188630 -44.55% -20.15%
Newsday 553117 278369 247703 -55.22% -11.02%
Houston Chronicle 549300 234483 225032 -59.03% -4.03%
Dallas Morning News 528379 345342 172690 -67.32% -49.99%
SF Chronicle 499008 229176 145520 -70.84% -36.50%
Arizona Republic 466926 274783 244726 -47.59% -10.94%
Boston Globe 446241 180919 159458 -64.27% -11.86%
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.

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7 Responses to Newspaper print circulation is down about half in last ten years

  • 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.

    Anyone interested in stocking up on talking point get them from echo chamber website which is why more and more if you encounter someone they are living on a different planet.

  • The Denver Post publishes its national news articles as direct reprints from whatever the Lockstep Libs at AP or McClatchy or the Washington Post publish.

    LIE-ber-al all the way.

    And, sheesh, the cost for a subscription goes up a mega-crap-ton each year. (Make that “each 48 weeks”. Shortening the term is how they hid the first couple rounds of price increases.) They’ve also cut back the physical size of the paper (11″ wide when folded vertically). I really had to argue with myself when the renewal came this last time (finally went with a shorter under-6-month term).

    I really DO like having a paper to read in the morning; but… I DON’T like the blood-pressure spike I get from some of these headlines. Coffee-and-muffin and “Aaargh!! Those damn lying liars!! And the gullible idjits who BELIEVE this crap!! Aaargh!!” don’t go well together.

  • Even if quality and bias were not issues, post-Boomer generations are simply unwilling to shell out for a subscription to a newspaper. Why pay for a paper when you can find virtually everything online? Newspapers are facing the exact same generation shift problem that the cable television companies are beginning to encounter. The entire model is hosed without future customers replacing the older generations.

    Heck, if it weren’t for the obituary section, I’m not sure that even my Boomer parents would keep their subscription.

  • “…exposed unambiguously in grammatical and printing errors.” I noticed this in the WSJ starting about 5-6 years. Repeated paragraphs, doubled words, sentences that cannot be accurately parsed, drives me batty. OTOH I enjoy reading it and Barrons while soaking in the hot tub. Try doing that more than once with a tablet. Also the old copies are great for lighting kindling in the fire box I use to heat the house. Again, not something I recommend with a tablet.

  • Dead tree newspapers are headed the way of buggy-whips and saddles. They MAY have a niche in the future, but it will be tiny by comparison to their circulation even now.

    Their investors and managers have shown remarkably little dexterity in finding new ways to offer the public a product it finds attractive at the price. This seems to me to be more a case of ideological blinkering than a lack of acumen.

  • The ownership of outdated dead tree paper firms is basically a status symbol for the rich these days, with ads offsetting their losses. Although they are not read by anyone under the age of 80, I wouldn’t expect them to vanish entirely for the same reason junk mail hasn’t disappeared, but they are no longer relevant.