Free Markets, Free People


Where will newspaper circulation and influence be in 2016?

Given the pathetic performance of our media during the Benghazi tragedy/debacle, I’ve been wondering just what will happen to the media before the next election after this one. I decided to look at where they were a couple of cycles ago, to get some historical perspective. I thought QandO readers might be interested in the results and my own speculations.

I had seen this article in the Washington Post a few days ago, giving circulation of the top 25 newspapers. I found another source showing circulation of the top 100 newspapers in 2004. So I fired up Excel and entered the top 15 from 2004 to see where they are now, and also noted the new members of the top 15 that were not there in 2004.

One adjustment was called for. I restricted the comparison to print copies. I’m assuming the 2004 figures were only print copies, or that web “copies” were insignificant. However, the Post reported circulation for 2012 with print and web combined, though they did note the web number. So the spreadsheet subtracted web circulation from total circulation to get print circulation.

Here are the results, with percentage increase or decrease in print circulation calculated. Almost all “decrease”, as you shall see.

 

Newspaper

Gross 2012

Web 2012

Net Print 2012

2004

%+- for 2012

USA Today

1713833

86307

1627526

2192098

-25.7549

WSJ

2293798

794594

1499204

2101017

-28.6439

NYT

1613865

896352

717513

1119027

-35.8806

LA Times

641369

151577

489792

983727

-50.2106

Wash Post

462228

27535

434693

760034

-42.8061

NY Daily News

535875

146605

389270

712671

-45.3787

NY Post

522868

178113

344755

642844

-46.3703

Chicago Tribune

411960

23112

388848

603315

-35.5481

Newsday

392989

114620

278369

553117

-49.6727

Houston Chronicle

325814

91331

234483

549300

-57.3124

Dallas Morning News

410130

64788

345342

528379

-34.6412

SF Chronicle*

229176

0

229176

499008

-54.0737

Arizona Republic

275622

839

274783

466926

-41.1506

Chicago Sun-Times

432455

70932

361523

453757

-20.3267

Boston Globe

230351

49432

180919

446241

-59.4571

     

 

New in top 15:

   

 

Denver Post

412669

176446

236223

340169

-30.5572

Tampa Bay Times

313003

13610

299393

348502

-14.0915

San Jose Mercury News

529999

43318

486681

279539

74.10129

* SF Chronicle dropped out of the top 25, so circulation was obtained from another web source.

This table isn’t really fair to newspapers that are making decent money through their web versions, but from what I can tell, that group has one member among the majors: the Wall Street Journal. NYT is the other major with a decent paid web subscription, but they won’t talk about their web financials anywhere I can find, which tells me the web is probably losing money for them.

WSJ and NYT also share the distinction that, if you include their web numbers, circulation has gone up instead of down. However, I found out that the Times has stalled in their monthly unique visitors. They were passed last year by the Huffington Post. So while the web has helped stem the decline in NYT readership, it won’t continue to do so unless they can get their web numbers increasing again.

I can’t find a reliable source that tells how much the other top newspapers really make through the web, either in circulation fees or in advertising, but I’m guessing it is a small fraction of what they made on the equivalent “circulation” in print in 2004.

So, just looking at print, and assuming revenue from the web is way less than revenue from equivalent print subscriptions, these guys are hurting. There is only one legitimate success story in the bunch: the San Jose Mercury News. Everyone else had gone down, with several losing over half their circulation in just eight years. The Tampa Bay Times managed to break in the top fifteen by merely losing fewer readers than any 2004 top 15 member.

Even among the ones towards the top, the signs of their distress are clear. I see USA Today when I’m on the road because many hotels give it away free. I rather doubt that this is a high-profit distribution for USA Today, and I’ve watched the daily edition get steadily thinner and thinner in the last few years. I don’t have actual numbers, but I think it’s at least one-third smaller than it was eight years ago. If they didn’t have one of the most comprehensive sports sections in the country, I think they would be even worse off.

The legacy press is driving on fumes. Over and above their shattered credibility, or in some respects because of it, their economic model is stressed to the breaking point.

So where will they be in 2016? I think the NYT and WSJ will tread water, the WSJ because they have a reasonably viable economic model and have not totally squandered their credibility, and the NYT because the left simply won’t let them sink.

The others, though, have a more chancy outlook. USA Today looks vulnerable to me, because it looks like the easiest national newspaper to replace with a web-based aggregation app. They do very little original reporting except for the sports section. They have not yet ramped up a decent web presence, and it’s pretty late in that game. I’ve noticed that fewer hotels have it than I used to see. I was in two hotels in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, and neither of them had it.

The Washington Post looks vulnerable too. It also has limited web presence, and print circulation is down a staggering 40%+ in eight years. With their concentration on politics, the operating model of the Post requires a certain level of spending to maintain. If they drop much further, they simply might not be able to be viable on the newspaper side. I suppose they can cross-subsidize from their other divisions such as Kaplan, but that doesn’t seem like a stable long-term strategy to me.

The problems get worse for any newspaper that isn’t explicitly national. The local papers’ major advertising revenue sources generally include department stores, movies, and automobiles. All of those are threatened by the web. It never enters the mind of a twenty something to buy a newspaper to find movie listings, and Amazon is killing department stores all over the country. Craigslist is wiping out local newspaper classifieds, and Monster.com and it’s relatives are wiping out the Help Wanted sections. 

I think the legacy press will remain a force through the 2016 election. They still have some reserves to draw on, at least economically. But their reserves of credibility are diminished more than their circulation numbers, so the influence will be considerably diminished.  

After that, I don’t know. For all I know, news in 2020 may be delivered primarily via Facebook, with your friends “Like” preferences driving what you are offered. Or Apple might so something to leverage the iPad 7. No doubt Google will try something, and their strength with advertisers might be their hole card. None of those answer the question, though, of where the content will come from.

Getting away from traditional papers for content might require some kind of crowd-sourced solution. AP or Reuters would be obvious candidates to try that, but I don’t think either one has the web savvy or the cultural savvy to succeed.

I think the Cheezburger network has as much chance of success at crowd-sourced news as AP or Reuters. As awful as that sounds, though, I’m not sure it’s worse than depending on the New York Times.

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8 Responses to Where will newspaper circulation and influence be in 2016?

  • I quote misef from another thread…

     

    The unfortunate message is that a compliant media will endanger national security to enhance the reputation of this administration; but not post facto worry about finding how it was lost and why Americans were killed — if it might question the administration’s judgment. Of all the things written about the four Obama years, one of the most telling will be how an entire industry forfeited its integrity for political purposes and lost its reputation.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/332254/dereliction-duty-victor-davis-hanson
    Disgusting Collectivist behavior.
    The Mushroom Media are committing suicide, but doing it like a drunk driver.  They are hazarding the rest of us in their death-drive.

    • It is collectivist and worse: irrational, nihilistic, subjective…
      And FOX does it too, from the collectivist side, but that is a consequence of appealing to a mass market.

  • They need government bail out money dammit!
    I use newspaper to start the charcoal briquets in my briquet chimney and nothing works quite as well.
    Printed newspaper must continue so I can continue to start my grill fires in the manner to which I am accustomed!  I pay my taxes!  I want results!
    This is a coming crisis if ever I saw one!!!!!!
    Someone needs to DOOOOOO SOMETHING!!!!!!!!!

    • Quite! My daughter’s Guinea Pig loves the financially troubled Arizona Repulsive and if it shuts down we’ll have to find another source for cage bottom padding.

  • If it’s not in the WSJ, either it did not happen or it was not important.

  • “They were passed last year by the Huffington Post”
    This is why I am not overjoyed with the legacy media dying, ushering a new age of balanced journalism.
    I think many of the rats have already jumped ship and now work at Buzzfeed or whatever.
    The only good news is that these new organizations do not have the non-partisan mantle.
    Lefties could sniff at your Washington Times link and claim the Washington Post was more legit, and I think that does not work with Huffington Post at all. The new media have no legacy mystique of days of yore when they were supposedly more neutral.

    • My first preference would have been a reasonably non-partisan press, but since we don’t have that, I’ll take the legacy media’s decline and irrelevance. Right now, we’ve got the worst of both worlds - a partisan press that has completely chosen sides in the political debate, but is not above using its non-partisan reputation from past decades to further its partisan ends.

      So I want to see those non-partisan-but-not-really brands destroyed or at least rendered irrelevant. NYT and Washington Post are at the top of the list since so many other media outlets take their cues from them. Next in line is Reuters and AP, for the same reasons.

      Partisan media sometimes suffer confirmation bias in what they report, but at least we and their audience know that.