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Jan. 28, 2019, 10:48 a.m.

Newspapers cost more than twice as much today as they did a decade ago (and that was a smart move by publishers)

Once print advertising collapsed, newspapers hiked prices to get more money from readers. If they hadn’t, they’d employ even fewer journalists and be in even worse shape today.

If you’ve been a daily print newspaper subscriber for any length of time — whether it’s a seven-day morning habit you’ve had for decades or a Sunday-only New York Times subscription you have mainly so your four-year-old will sometimes see Dada reading something other than a screen :raised_hand: — you’ve noticed prices have gone nowhere but up.

A seven-day print subscription to the Times will now run you over $1,000 a year in much of the country. A subscription to The Boston Globe here in Cambridge will run you about $750 a year. The Washington Post or The Dallas Morning News will each run you about $650. And if you’re in that dying breed of single-copy buyers at a newsstand or coffee shop, those four papers would cost you, on a weekday, $3, $2.50, $2, and $2.49, respectively.

Those prices have gone up fast. As recently as 2013, a weekday Boston Globe ran you $1.25 and a Washington Post or Dallas Morning News cost $1. And kids, gather ’round while I tell you about how angry people were in 2001 when a copy of the Post went from 25 cents to 35 cents. A year’s home delivery subscription to the Post cost about $130 back then. Even accounting for inflation since then, a Post subscription now costs about 3.5 times what it used to.

Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim have done us a service in a new paper just published in Journalism Studies, measuring the rate at which all those prices have gone up — or at least went up between 2008 and 2016, the span they analyze — at 25 large American newspapers:

The analysis documented industry-wide, more-than-substantial price hikes. Seven-day home delivery price more than doubled, and weekday single-copy price tripled. Seven-day subscription now costs $510 a year — print subscribers are paying on average $293 more to have the same newspaper delivered to their doorstep. Despite the increase in price, about two-thirds of print readers remained loyal to a product that has become much more expensive and is considered dying by many.

Here’s the key chart from their paper (click to enlarge):

The biggest price-hiker by a fair margin was the Los Angeles Times, who went from a quite-low $104 to about-what-you’d-expect-these-days $624 for a year of home delivery. But in general, these large newspapers increased their prices between 2× and 2.5×. Weekday single-copy prices went up even more, roughly tripling.

(This isn’t Chyi and Tenenboim’s point, but having the data in one place makes it clear how deeply irrational some of these prices can seem when put in comparison with one another. The Mercury News, which has thoroughly gutted its newsroom, costs $673 a year — more than twice the better-considered Tampa Bay Times? The San Francisco Chronicle is twice as expensive as the Star Tribune? The Las Vegas Review-Journal costs more than The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, or The Dallas Morning News? Pricing is a bit of a black box, of course, a mixture of actual costs, market strategy, and owner greed. But this list looks about as logic-driven as ER pricing of pregnancy tests.)

That said…Chyi and I don’t agree on much when it comes to newspaper industry strategy, and I can’t say I agree with where she takes this interesting dataset from there. Chyi has argued in many papers that the perception that print is in serious decline is both false and self-inflicted — that is, if media types would just stop saying print is dying, it wouldn’t be.

From this article (I’m omitting its academic citations here, but they’re in the paper; all emphases mine):

While the legacy format is important, “the death of print” is one of the most prominent themes in U.S. newspapers’ self-evaluation. This theme — or death narrative — has gone viral since the 2008 recession. In 2009, Time magazine published the list of “Ten Most Endangered Newspapers in America.” In 2010, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., Publisher of The New York Times, said: “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” The Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California predicted that almost all U.S. print newspapers would disappear in five years — i.e., by 2016.

This death narrative fostered a sense of crisis and cast serious doubts on the sustainability of print newspapers. A 2012 survey reported that as many as one-third of U.S. newspaper publishers envisioned a time when they would stop publishing the print edition. The pessimistic view about print has also influenced the industry’s digital transformation strategy, contributed to the “anti-print, pro-digital” discourse, and most importantly resulted in the continued disinvestments in the print operation. Since the recession, U.S. newspaper newsroom employment dropped by 45%. Tens of thousands of journalists, mostly those on the print side, lost their jobs. This resulted in a lesser product and the “suicide spiral” — newspapers may actually kill their core product through cutbacks. Therefore, “print is dying” is more than a narrative. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it has real, profound consequences in shaping the fate of newspapers and the future of journalism.

I’m…just not sure what to do with this. Print newspaper circulation has been steadily declining on a per-capita basis since World War II — more than 70 years. First, TV took a huge chunk of Americans’ attention, then the web did, then our phones did. When I look at the data, it’s very hard for me to see any impact of newspapers running stories on B6 about a quarterly drop in circulation or cranky bloggers saying “information wants to be free.” Chyi writes that “the death narrative is often triggered by the decline in print circulation,” when in fact — both in reality and in perception — the well-documented collapse of print advertising is by far the bigger culprit. (Newspapers’ troubles are less about readers finding new alternatives — though obviously that doesn’t help! — and much more about advertisers finding new alternatives.)

As Chyi and Tenenboim note, these price hikes weren’t accidents — they were part of a conscious strategy on the part of newspapers. Newspapers had always been priced more cheaply than they cost to produce, because advertisers were the ones really paying the bills. (A typical American newspaper pre-web made about 80 percent of its revenue from advertisers, 20 percent from readers.) Advertisers wanted to get their messages in front of lots of people, so newspapers priced themselves low to maintain a mass audience.

When print advertising collapsed — and remember, that’s what happened first — publishers realized (a) they’d need to get relatively more money from readers and (b) that those people who were still subscribing to a daily newspaper in the digital era were actually pretty devoted to it. They’d stick around at a higher price point. Here’s former Dallas Morning News publisher Jim Moroney explaining his thinking back in 2010:

I’ve had a motto for my whole media life: “In God we trust. Everything else we research.” So we had a belief that in 2008 that this decline in advertising was not going to dissipate in the newspaper business, and I hired a company out of Salt Lake City called the Modellers. The Modellers do price elasticity studies for consumer goods. They can tell you that if Campbell Soup raises its price by five cents, how many less cans of Campbell Soup will they sell. I asked them, “Why can’t you tell me if I raise the price of my newspaper by X, how many less copies of that newspaper I’ll sell?”…

[Their research] basically says that if we raise the price by 40%, we would lose about 12% of the volume of the newspaper. So as things unfolded in latter 2008 and the economy went bust, we were glad to have this information. On May 1, 2009, we raised the home delivery price of The Dallas Morning News by 40% to our home delivery subscribers, and we raised it 100% to the people who were in the state [outside the Dallas area]. If you went back to November 1, 2008, we actually had doubled the price of the newspaper in a period of about a year-and-a-half. We lost, as this thing predicted, 12% of our subscribers.

I will tell you that wasn’t so bad because they were churned subscribers. They weren’t the people that were loyal to the company. And we raised revenue in what is a very important bucket of revenue. Back five years ago, The Dallas Morning News was about 80% revenue from advertising and 20% from subscribers. Now, ad revenue has gone down. That’s helped change this equation. But we are now at about 38% of our revenue is coming from people who are paying for the paper either by home delivery or single copy…

Most newspapers in the country have pricing power if they’ll only go out and take it. The Columbus Dispatch raised the price to their best customers, the ones they believed could afford to pay for it, by 100% and lost about 8% of their volume overall. I think they did a better job than we did. But this is an opportunity for how do we pay for journalism. I’ve got to find more sustainable revenue sources. And the consumer, who loves the newspaper, who isn’t going to give it up until they are six feet under, they will pay more for the newspaper, because we’ve subsidized the price over time.

This move was repeated in markets across the country — and it kept circulation revenue either stable or slightly up for a lot of papers. This was literally the only good revenue news these publishers got for almost a decade. As Chyi and Tenenboim put it:

This study examined the extent to which major U.S. newspapers’ print subscription price and single-copy price changed since the 2008 recession. The analysis documented industry-wide, more-than-substantial price hikes. Seven-day home delivery price more than doubled, and weekday single-copy price tripled. In-market print reach declined across the board, but about two-thirds of print readers remained loyal to a product that has become so much more expensive. This study also updated research on U.S. newspapers’ price elasticity of demand. In most cases, demand for the print product has remained inelastic, which explains why so many newspapers implemented price hikes after the recession.

“Inelastic” meaning that user loyalty was such that raising prices didn’t have a huge impact on subscriptions or readers. Here’s data from Pew showing the success of that strategy when it comes to circulation revenue:

And yet Chyi and Tenenboim portray this move as shortsighted. I suppose that if you think that the long-term future of American newspapers is as a mass-market print medium, I guess that makes sense. That’s just not the real world.

Through empirically examining changes in newspaper price, this study uncovered another important aspect of consumer behavior: nearly two-thirds of newspaper readers have stayed loyal to the “dead-tree” edition despite price hikes as dramatic as documented in this study. This provides further evidence for newspaper readers’ stronger-than-expected attachment to the print edition. Demand for the supposedly “dying” product has remained inelastic, which explains why the print edition to this day remains the cash cow, the primary revenue driver, for newspapers across the board.

Twenty years into newspapers’ digital experiment, it is crucial that publishers reassess reader preference and refocus on preferred platforms.

The problem is they’re not making more print newspaper readers. Yes, a lot of people who have been reading print newspapers for the past 50 years want to continue to do so. No, lowering print prices to 2008 levels would not suddenly make 23-year-olds put down their phones and become daily Las Vegas Review-Journal readers. Chyi and Tenenboim tweak history a bit to make it seem as though it was price hikes that were somehow a driver for the advertising declines instead of the reverse:

Since readership is the foundation for advertising, readership declines at least partially contributed to the free fall in print advertising revenue from $42.2 billion in 2007 to $16.4 billion in 2014. Was turning away from the advertising model a wise strategy in the long term? Or, was the newspaper industry over-reacting to market fluctuations when the recession hit? Ten years after the recession, these questions are important and should not remain unanswered.

But both history and their own data don’t match up with that. Newspapers raised prices after ad revenues collapsed — they didn’t “turn away” from ad revenue, ad revenue turned away from them. The huge ad declines happened in 2006-2010; the price hikes came after that trajectory was crystal clear. (Chyi and Tenenboim’s data collection is only for the years 2008, 2012, and 2016, not the years in between, but it’s clear that the really big hikes came after 2012. The median home delivery price in their study is $208 in 2008, $299 in 2012, and $520 in 2016.) The decline in print advertising was not some recession-only “market fluctuation” that only took hold because some papers raised prices. C’mon.

I appreciate that we now have good data showing the extent of price hikes. If you think that, but for a few strategic missteps, print would be the business you want to be in in 2019 — then well, I guess you can criticize them as shortsighted. But if you’re someone who cares about the future of newspapers, generating more money from their most loyal customers is a good thing. It’s literally just about the only strategic move that’s worked industry-wide over the past decade. It’s not a play you can run forever — but it’s worked better than anything else in the playbook.

Photo by Joanne Bourne used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 28, 2019, 10:48 a.m.
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