R.I.P, PM newspapers
Only six weeks into the year, the toll has begun:
:: The presses were silenced forever on New Year’s Eve at the Cincinnati Post (last reported circulation 42,000).
:: The Madison Capital Times (circulation 17,000) announced today that it will be cut to a two-day-a-week insert in the Wisconsin State Journal.
:: The historic Albuquerque Tribune (circulation 11,000) is living on borrowed time after plans to sell it to local businessmen evidently fell through.
For all that ails newspapers – and there is quite a lot – afternoon newspapers in competitive markets have been feeling the industry’s pain even more acutely than AM titles for more than 25 years. And there is nothing to suggest anything is going to reverse that.
It wasn’t always so. In the post-World War II period, the number of afternoon papers in the United States hit an all-time high of 1,453 in 1948 vs. only 328 morning properties in the same year, according to the Newspaper Association of America. At the end of 2006, by contrast, there were 833 morning and 614 afternoon papers, representing a decline of 344 publications.
You may be surprised to learn (as I was) that afternoon papers outnumbered morning papers in as recently as 1999, when 736 titles were printed on the morning cycle and 760 papers came off the press in the afternoon.
But changing demographics, shifting commuting patterns and upstart media like TV (trends discussed more thoroughly here) have been whacking afternoon circulation since 1980 at a far more furious rate than experienced by morning papers.
As you can see from the chart below, a 7% decline in the average circulation of afternoon newspapers between 1970 and 1980 rose to an 18% drop in average circulation in between 1970 and 1980 and snowballed to a 36% plunge in average circulation in the 10-year period ended in 1990. While the average circulation of morning papers also began eroding in 1980, the decline was more moderate than the loss at PM titles until 2006.
As afternoon newspapers became increasingly unpopular among consumers, many publishers operating in single-paper towns migrated their production to the morning cycle. That’s one reason why the number of morning papers has overtaken the number of afternoon titles.
But there is no room for a second morning paper in a competitive market dominated by an incumbent AM property. And that leaves PMs in competitive markets with no place to go.
The owners of the Cincinnati, Madison and Albuquerque newspapers have an additional incentive to either downsize or forsake their franchises.
Scripps, the owner of the afternoon titles in both Cincinnati and Albuquerque, is a partner in each market in a joint-operating agreement with the owner of the morning paper. When the cost of propping up each weakened afternoon paper is stripped away, there will be financial benefits for both Scripps and the publishers of the surviving morning titles.
The Capital City Times is in a similar joint venture with Lee Enterprises that will enable both partners to achieve significant savings when they stop producing and delivering the free-standing, six-day-a-week afternoon product. [CORRECTION 2/13/08: In the original post, I stated erroneously that Lee owned both papers.]
With the economic pressures on the industry likely to mount for the forseeable future, it appears we are about to see a growing number of obituaries for PM papers, a feisty breed whose better days, unfortunately, are behind them.