Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Circulation: Worse than you think

American newspapers have lost nearly a quarter of their subscribers since the industry's average daily circulation hit an all-time high of 63.3 million in 1984.

Circulation has dropped by 23.6% over the last 24 years to 48.4 million today, according to the most recent figures provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulations and the Newspaper Association of America. In the same period, average Sunday circulation has fallen 15.3% to a bit under 48.8 million.

(After analyzing here the circulation declines at individual papers, Mark Potts notes that several would be happy if their subscriber rolls had dropped by "only 23.6%" in recent years.)

As you can see from the chart below, the industry has been unable to produce a gain in daily circulation since 1987. Sunday sales have not shown any positive momentum since 1993.

While newspaper circulation has weakened since the 1980s, the decay has accelerated sharply since 2003. Sunday circulation, which had been relatively more resilient than daily sales, now is falling more precipitously than daily sales.

Today’s daily circulation is back to where it was in 1945 and the Sunday sale is where it was in 1965.

Though circulation is at pre-Baby Boom levels, the U.S. population has more than doubled since the mid-1940s. If you divide circulation by population, you will find that fewer than 18 out of 100 Americans today buy a daily or Sunday newspaper. Back in 1945, 36% of the population bought a daily paper and 31% took a Sunday edition.


Blogger heyalchang said...

If it's true people bought the newspaper bundle despite only needing pieces, step back from the macro numbers and evaluate what remains of the functional pieces of the that information bundle.

stock quotes - removed
movie times - removed
classifieds - shrinking / irrelevant
sports scores - old
sports stats - removed

reviews (entertainment, automobiles, events), recipes, personal advice, and opinion - either by wire, insufficient, or done by a local person. These need to be the best or personal, (and the collection comprehensive). The newspaper is none of these most of the time.

Which leaves,
-World and local news, at least 12-24 hours old.
-local ads

Circulation should keep failing. There's fewer pieces people need inside the bundle. There's nothing left in the paper!

Context I suppose, but even that's turned on its ear. It was one of Mark Cuban's commenters who said, "i don't need to look for the news. if the news is important, it'll find me." So true.

2:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


A point of accuracy: Please don't label a circulation decline as a "readership crisis." Circulation measures distribution; readership measures audience consumption of distributed content. Obviously, the two are related, but they most certainly are not the same.


5:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of this drop is a deliberate business strategy of cutting off outlying circulation, and cutting the number of single-copy sales sites. I think both these moves are mindless, since they confirm the belief newspapers are losing. But executives decided that outlying circulation is too expensive to service, and isn't counted in ad rates which are based on circulation in close-in jurisdictions. I know of cases where people pleaded to have the newspaper continued to be delivered, only to be rebuffed on the grounds they lived too far away. But, hello, where have a lot of wealthy Americans moved in the last few decades, but far-out exurbs. Cutting off new homeowners denied advertisers those potential customers most likely to buy new furniture and other things for their new homes. They are also more likely to need a new car more frequently. Cost considerations also resulted in dropping some stores that sold few copies daily, or eliminating some of the street-corner newspaper boxes. Gannett did this aggressively. I am of the old school that felt selling newspapers was a good thing. You don't cut off your customers, no matter how poorly they treat you, as long as they are still buying. Final point is appeal, and the fault of news editors is putting together front pages that lack reader appeal. The Washington Post recently led a paper with a budget stalemate thumbsucker. How many passersby are going to buy a paper for a budget impasse story?

6:21 AM  
Blogger Tim Windsor said...

When I took a deep dive into my local market's numbers, the picture looks pretty grim:

While overall number of households in the Baltimore DMA grew 12% from 1996-2008, during this same period household penetration of the paper in the market dropped 40% on average on weekdays, and 33% on Sundays.


9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

heyalchang said it all - the internet changed everything - I can get all these from the source, (such as the NFL for football scores and stats) so why buy a newspaper.

Get it from the source: stock quotes, movie times, sports scores, sports stats

If you can't go to the source, you can go to a national web site that specializes in that area for:

reviews & entertainment news, personal advice, opinion, World news

So what does a city newspaper do well:
local news
local sports (not you local NFL, NBA, MLB team) but the high schools, etc.
local ads

And you have to expect that a much smaller number of people will care about that. So you will have to scale back your product. Newspapers will only appeal to a much smaller market that wants this info and you won't need nearly as much staff to cover it.

4:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home