Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2010 Issue

Newspapers Continue Their Rapid Decent

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By Michael Stillman

Circulation at America's newspapers took another huge hit during the last quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. According to figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the premier organization for tracking such things, average weekday sales at all newspapers declined 8.7% on a year-to-year basis, while Sunday readership declined by 6.5% Some tried to paint a happy face on this news by pointing out that this was actually less of a decline than last year, when weekday circulation tumbled 10.6%, Sunday circulation 7.5%. The difference hardly matters. This is a rate of decline barely better than freefall, and most newspapers are locked into a business model that is no longer sustainable. The fat lady is practicing her scales.

Of the top 25 U.S. newspapers, 24 experienced declines in circulation. Only the Wall Street Journal saw an increase, albeit very small (0.5%). More about its case later. The San Francisco Chronicle, on a death-watch for several years, was hammered the worst - weekday down 22.7%. However, many major names in the business also took hits nearly as bad. U.S.A. Today dropped 13.6%, the Washington Post 13.1%, the New York Times 8.5%. Weekday circulation at the Los Angeles Times dropped 14.7%, the Chicago Sun Times 13.9%.

Several newspapers attributed at least part of their declines to attempts to shore up their balance sheets. Several large papers instituted major increases in the newsstand price. However, it would appear that much of their gains were eaten up by circulation declines, and more importantly, advertising rates are based on circulation figures. Those, too, will have to fall. Short term relief will likely lead to even greater long-term stress.

One positive noted by many newspapers is that their websites have been seeing increased traffic. Indeed, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that newspapers will have to migrate to the web or die. They will not survive as print media, but perhaps may as electronic media. James Tyree, publisher and part of a team that recently bought Chicago's Sun Times (-13.9%) was recently quoted as saying newspapers still have 10 good years left. My guess is some may, but that there are plenty which will fold, at least as print media, long before then. One of these days, we will for the first time see some major city lose its last newspaper, and after that, to paraphrase King Louis XV, will come the deluge.

Tyree also stated that newspapers need to evolve into something else within, perhaps, five years, so as to be able to make the transition out of print. At this point, the only alternative that appears to be being actively pursued is websites. Naturally, there are no printing and delivery costs associated with online editions. However, there is no circulation revenue either. It also is not clear whether their online sites will provide the advertising effectiveness, or bring in the advertising revenue, of print editions. The potential reach of online editions is much greater, but potential is not a synonym for actual. Meanwhile, they may have to compete as equals against competitors from all over the world for national and international news, and other local sites, such as television station websites, for local news. The virtual monopoly on news that their circulation/delivery base gave them as print editions will disappear in the thin air of the web.

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