The decline could become increasingly troublesome for publishers – who already have enough problems – because Sunday traditionally accounts for about half the total ad sales for the typical newspaper.
Circulation dropped an average of 3.5% on Sunday and 2.5% daily in the ABC statistics for the six-month period ended in September, according to a statistical summary complied today by Editor and Publisher Magazine, the industry trade journal.
Applying the circulation decline at the 600-plus papers covered by today’s ABC report to the total universe of more than 1,400 daily newspapers published in the United States, it appears that total Sunday circulation of 51.3 million this year will roughly equal daily circulation for the first time since Sunday newspapers began outselling the daily product in 1990.
The slide in Sunday sales to the lowest point since 1975 will reverse a 17-year period during which publishers sold significantly more papers on Sunday than they did during the week, according statistics maintained by the Newspaper Association of America.
Sunday sales hit a record of 62.56 million copies in 1993, as illustrated in the graph below. While Sunday outpaced daily circulation though the 1990s and into the first part of this decade, Sunday sales began to decline in 2003. Between 2002 and today, Sunday circulation fell by 7.18 million copies, while daily circ dropped 4.12 million copies – a difference of 72%.
An ongoing decline in Sunday readership, if unabated, could have a disproportionately greater impact on the already weakened economics of newspapers than a corresponding reduction in daily sales. That’s because Sunday sales historically have generated half of the advertising revenues at most newspapers.
In the simplest analysis, it is easy to see how revenues would decline if a newspaper selling X number of advertising inserts for $Y per thousand had Z thousand fewer papers to stuff. Fortunately for publishers, the correlation between Sunday circ and ad revenues is not so direct and – at this writing, anyway – not so dire.
It is likely that a significant portion of Sunday circulation was eliminated deliberately by publishers eager to do away with the high cost of hauling newspapers great distances to poorly penetrated locations. For reasons discussed previously here, here and here, the Denver newspapers shed 12.5% of their Sunday circulation in the last six months and the Atlanta Constitution trimmed 9.2% of its Sunday run. Advertisers never saw much value in distant circulation, so won’t be particularly ruffled by its loss.
Newspapers also are protected for the time being by the fact that they have convinced most advertisers that the Sunday paper is the most valuable edition of the week, because readers spend twice as much time reading the Sunday paper as the daily editions. If advertisers continue buying this story, newspapers have a shot at dancing around a certain decline in Sunday circulation.
But the dancing publishers are vulnerable to the question of how much time people actually spend with a newspaper, Sunday or otherwise.
A survey commissioned by the NAA reported, in typically elliptical fashion, that 45% of its respondents spent an average of 60 minutes per issue reading the Sunday paper vs. 30 minutes with the daily paper. But an independent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that national newspaper readership averaged only 15 minutes per issue in 2006 – a decline, incidentally, of four minutes (or 21%) since 1994.
Given the enormous difference between the two findings, it is only matter of time before advertisers begin wondering which study is right. When the time comes, the dancing publishers had better be ready to face the music.