Twitter  Why the Cleveland Plain Dealer is changing how it writes sports game stories  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Newspapers take a bus plunge: circulation plummets 10.6 percent

It’s hard to put a good face on this kind of news; in fact, it reminds me of the old “bus plunge” meme. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reports that newspaper circulation for the six months ending Sept. 30 dropped 10.6 percent from the same period in 2008 (7.5 percent on Sundays).

And this is an accelerating trend. Here are the results for the three previous six-month reporting periods (in each case, versus the same period one year earlier):

— Oct. 1, 2008-Mar. 31, 2009: down 7.1 percent on weekdays, down 5.3% on Sundays
— Apr. 1, 2008-Sept. 30, 2008: down 4.6 percent on weekdays, down 4.9 percent on Sunday
— Oct. 1, 2007-Mar. 31, 2008: down 3.5 percent on weekdays, down 4.5 percent on Sundays

In each case, the decline was the worst ever reported by ABC. The bus-plunge, cliff-drop analogy will get additional support when the Newspaper Association of America’s third-quarter advertising revenue report comes out (typically at Halloween); it’s likely to continue the trend of the previous two quarters with a drop in the 20-30 percent ballpark.

The NAA has not provided positive spin on the circulation news (it usually distributes an internal memo with upbeat talking points for publishers), but last week it did report gains in newspaper website traffic along with this comment from NAA President and CEO John Sturm:

Newspaper publishers continue to aggressively reinvent their business models, leveraging trusted brands to attract a growing and sophisticated audience in the digital space. At the same time, industry executives have adopted smarter circulation strategies that are growing circulation revenues even though paid circulation numbers are lower. This places the focus where it belongs: retaining core readers who deliver maximum value to advertisers while harnessing digital platforms to broaden our medium’s audience and position us strongly for the future.

Rick Edmonds at Poynter provides a good enumeration of the various factors behind the print decline, including strategic pullbacks by newspapers from fringe distribution and higher prices charged to subscribers and single-copy buyers. NAA also reported recently, as a positive development, that the “churn rate” (which measures how often subscribers fail to renew their subscription), had dropped from 54.5 percent in 2000 to 31.8 percent in 2008. It’s probably even lower today, as papers simply stop trying to retain marginal subscribers and focus on keeping their “core readers,” as Sturm says.

The 10.6-percent decline means that since last year, about 4.5 percent of U.S. households have given up reading a printed newspaper, and that printed newspapers now reach less than 40 percent of U.S. households. About the same percentage of adults say they get “most of their news” from printed papers, but that fraction will very soon be overtaken by the portion who get most of their news from the web.

You could read Sturm’s comment as an acknowledgment of several inexorable trends: news readership is moving to the web; print circulation will continue to fall; print is now a niche product which still reaches our “core readers” (older, higher income readers still desirable to a subset of advertisers); newspapers will charge whatever they can for print subscriptions — but “digital platforms” are going to be the industry’s future.

I’m hopeful that’s the NAA’s real advice to publishers. Taken seriously, it implies that the much-discussed, little-implemented strategy of charging broadly for online content in order to “protect print” is backing the wrong horse. It’s because print is now a niche business that newspapers are able to show the growing circulation revenues mentioned by Sturm. Readers can’t be forced into print by online prices, although they certainly may pay for niche content online and they should pay, handsomely, for the luxury of a home-delivered newspaper. Meanwhile, the industry’s all-out focus should be on seriously growing its online audience.

Unfortunately, in that department it has a ways to go. The NAA is upbeat about the stats outlined in its web traffic report, but (as I outlined also after the Q2 report), seen in context, they paint a picture of an industry that’s lagging seriously in transforming itself to a digital news medium. An “active reach” of 38 percent means 62 percent of adults ignored newspaper web sites. About 48 pages per person per month means the average visitor looked at only 1.5 pages per day. Time spent, at 34 minutes per person in September (and down from the previous two summer-vacation months), is barely one minute per person per day. At most of the top newspaper sites, according to E&P’s compilation, that time spent is even lower — just twelve and a half minutes at the top-ranked, for example.

Meanwhile, the average web user spends between 30 and 40 hours a month online, depending on which survey you like, and dabbles at Facebook and other social networking sites 17 percent of that time. Time spent at social networking sites has tripled in the last year, while time spent at newspaper sites is flat, at best. (All these stats are from Nielsen, by the way, so there’s no apples/oranges issue going on.)

All of which is to say: newspapers have a pretty tiny share of online attention and are losing ground online just as they are in print. But online is the future the NAA’s Sturm is talking about. The focus for newspapers has to be on growing online attention share, fast.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    July 25, 2014
When people talk about explanatory journalism, the focus is on new players like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, or on giants like the Times and the Post. But can connecting the dots trickle down to the local level?
  • David Hertz

    Good article. Not only do newspapers need to grow online attention, but the revenue stream has to grow exponentially. Huffington Post and The Daily Beast offer some good clues on expansion without a great deal of capital outlay.

  • Richard L. Floyd

    Thanks, Martin, for your careful and insightful reporting of this ongoing story these past years. When I think of newspapers I have this image in mind of 16th Century monks in the scriptorium complaining about this guy Gutenberg and his new technology that is never going anywhere.

  • Pingback: Snabba kommentarer « Kenneth Eriksson

  • Katherine Warman Kern

    A 10.6% circulation drop is the last straw not the real problem. Journalists should do what they know how to do best and investigate the story behind the newspaper trends. Here’s what I have a found so far, with limited resources:

    Katherine Warman Kern

  • Pingback: Why NOW is the Best Time to Start a Local Blog : HyperlocalBlogger

  • Jonathan Stray

    Given that users are looking at Facebook, not newspaper sites, it’s shocking to me that news organizations have not embraced Facebook as a delivery platform.

    Of course most outlets have Facebook pages or feeds, but as far as I know only the Huffington Post uses a Facebook app for news delivery. The difference between a feed and an app is significant. Apps are programs that are interactive, have access to user’s data and social networks, and can live always in the user’s Facebook sidebar.

    In short, news need to go where the users are.

  • Pingback: This week in media musings: Filters for a self-informing public, and circ takes a hit | Mark Coddington

  • John Newby

    But isn’t the reason for our circulation declines due to shedding of 3rd-party and bulk newspapers? That is what ABC and NAA tells us each year!

    What you see is what you get, as the aging baby boomers continue to well, age; the declines will continue to be a major player or part of the business model.

  • Martin Langeveld

    @John Newby: It’s about more than just shedding 3rd party and other bulk, as I think you know. I’ve looked at a bunch of individual newspaper ABC reports for this past period and a lot of the decline is in real core circulation, home delivery and single copy at >50% pricing.

    My question is how long these drops can be sustained. Circulation is plummeting at an increasing rate; advertising is doing the same and will drop close to 30 percent for the full year 2009. There will be no bounceback from that: the last time the industry had a quarterly ad revenue gain exceeding (barely) 10 percent was in Q3 of 1987, 22 years ago. At best, they can keep their fingers crossed for a 5 percent recovery in 2010, but where will it come from?

  • roycecedric

    Mostly the reason is recession. Due to recession there is a huge drop in the newspaper circulation. A good article and strategy regarding daily new paper delivery.

  • Pingback: causes of high blood pressure