Newspaper Circulation Continues Decline

New circulation figures indicate that the major U.S. newspapers continue to face a steady erosion in their reach, despite declining peer competition.

Newspaper Circulation Continues Decline, Forcing Tough Decisions (WSJ)

The newspaper industry, already suffering from circulation problems, could be looking at its worst numbers in more than a decade. Circulation numbers to be released today by the Audit Bureau of Circulations probably will show industrywide declines of 1% to 3%, according to people familiar with the situation — possibly the highest for daily newspapers since the industry shed 2.6% of subscribers in 1990-91. The biggest publishers may show the largest declines: Gannett Co., which owns about 100 newspapers, says it will be down “a couple of points” from last year’s levels. Circulation at Tribune Co.’s Los Angeles Times is likely to be off in excess of 6% of its most recently reported figures. Belo Corp.’s Dallas Morning News expects to report daily circulation down 9% and Sunday circulation down 13% from the year-earlier period. All projected figures are for the six months ended in March. The Wall Street Journal, published by Dow Jones & Co., expects to report today that total circulation for the six-month period declined 0.8% to 2.07 million.

Long stuck in a slow decline, U.S. newspapers face the prospect of an accelerated drop in circulation. The slide is fueling an urgent industry discussion about whether the trend can be halted in a digital age and is forcing newspaper executives to rethink their traditional strategies.

Rather than simply trying to halt the decline, which can be done readily through discounts and promotions, they’re being forced to try to “manage” their circulation in new ways. Some publishers are deliberately cutting circulation in the hope of selling advertisers on the quality of their subscribers. Others are expanding into new markets to make up for losses in their core markets. Some are switching to a tabloid format or giving away papers to try to attract younger readers. Others are pouring money into television and radio advertising and expensive face-to-face sales pitches to potential subscribers.

What’s particularly astounding is that this comes at a time of rising populations and when industry consolidation means that there is no real local competition in most markets.

One wonders at the extent to which newspapers’ online editions are competing with the dead tree versions. That’s especially true for lesser papers that don’t offer compelling local coverage. Why anyone would read the Montgomery Advertiser, let alone the Troy Messenger, when they could read the NYT, WaPo, and other fine papers for “free” online escapes me.

As I’ve often noted, I’ve quit taking the Washington Post except for the Sunday edition, and even that usually goes unread. It’s not that I don’t still read the Post–I do–but I find the online edition more useful. Granted, most people don’t run a blog and a lot of folks don’t have broadband Internet access. Still, online editions have to cut into the demand for the paper editions.

Jeff Jarvis is not too worried, in any case.

[I]f print media spread out across new media — online, mobile, multimedia — and new, niche products — ethnic, entertainment, handout — then that’s good news: the mass market becomes the mass of niches; the audience is served where and when it wants to be served. And if that happens, circulation in the big, one-size-fits-all print products will decline and it will not be bad news. Lot of if’s there.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I don’t actually find this astounding at all.

    PC ownership, internet access, and consumer web experience are all growing at a strong rate, as are cable news channels and talk radio, enabling news consumers to get their information instantaneously from the same wire services as the papers, without having to wait for a newspaper to be printed and delivered.

    Right now, the focus of local and regional newspapers should be on local impact original reporting that cannot be supplanted by wire services, not parroting wire service articles that consumers can access virtually anywhere for free.

    Unfortunately, newspapers still don’t understand the need to narrowcast to survive, and so many very well many not.

  2. bryan says:

    Yes, it seems the newspaper circulation gurus are trying to do everything except the one thing that would help their circulation: hire more reporters to cover more local news.

    The problem is the era of 30 percent profit margins is going to come to an end, or the big chains are going to kill the entire industry.