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June 28, 2022, 7 a.m.
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For print newspapers, one Florida retirement community is a better market than Atlanta, St. Louis, or Portland

For local newspapers, print circulation has collapsed for every audience except retirees. That’s why the daily paper in The Villages, Florida (metro population 129,752) prints as many copies as the one in Atlanta (metro population 6,930,423).

Remember print?

Some of you do, I imagine. Many of your favorite news sites used to be printed on paper and then deposited at local convenience stores for purchase. Others were wrapped in a bag and thrown on your porch by a child.

The conversations in journalism have shifted so completely to digital — rightly so! — that it’s easy to forget that printed newspapers are still a thing. And if you’re a local newspaper, print is still the thing, financially speaking. As Axios put it a few days ago:

The U.S. is expected to make history in 2026 when it becomes the first major media market in the world to see digital newspaper ad revenue eclipse print newspaper ad revenue, according to a new report from PwC.

2026. That’s how long it’ll take for newspapers’ digital ad revenue to “eclipse” print ad revenue. Though as the chart shows, it’ll be that weird kind of “eclipse” where the Moon stays perfectly still for a decade while the Sun goes black dwarf.

So as strange as it sounds to say in 2022, print is still the main money maker for the largest newsrooms in almost every city and town in the United States.

So I was glad to see William Turvill at Press Gazette had pulled together the list of the 25 American newspapers with the highest print circulation. (The data is from the Alliance for Audited Media.)

Let’s start with the good news on the list! (It won’t take long.) The Villages Daily Sun made the Top 25 for the first time, coming in at No. 23. The Villages is “Florida’s Friendliest Active Adult 55+ Retirement Community,” a place filled with the target audience for print newspapers. (You can leave Ohio, but you can’t leave a lifelong reading habit, I guess. Here’s a good profile of the paper from 2018.)

To put it another way: The Villages Daily Sun is located in a metro area of 129,752 people. But it sells more print copies on an average weekday than the:

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (metro population: 2,053,232),
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (2,657,149),
— Charlotte Observer (2,822,352),
— The (Baltimore) Sun (2,844,510),
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2,909,003),
— The (Portland) Oregonian (3,280,736), or
— The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (3,633,962).

Or take an even bigger market: Atlanta, the 10th largest metro area in America, with a metro population of 6,930,423. On an average weekday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sells 49,243 print newspapers. The Villages Daily Sun sells 49,183.

Within the next few months, it’ll pass the New York Daily News, which was the best-selling newspaper in America in the mid 20th century, topping out at 2.4 million copies a day. Somewhere, Weegee is turning over in his grave.

Outside The Villages, though, the outlook for print remains terrible. Average circulation among the largest papers dropped 12% over the past year, and it’s not going to stop dropping.

To show the scale of the damage, I dug into the archives to see how many papers America’s largest dailies were selling way back in 2000. That’s so far back that you could write a research paper on the most popular search engines and include Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, InfoSeek, HotBot, and Altavista — but not Google. Y2K! Bush v. Gore! It was a simpler time, and a pretty damned good one for print newspapers.

Here are the 20 highest-circulation newspapers in 2000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.1 Next to their 2000 print circulation is their 2022 circulation. Next to that is a depressing number.

The 20 U.S. newspapers with the highest circulation in 2000, with 2022 print circulation
Rank Newspaper 2000 2022 Decrease
1 USA Today 1,777,488 159,233 91.0%
2 The Wall Street Journal 1,762,751 697,493 60.4%
3 The New York Times 1,097,180 329,781 69.9%
4 Los Angeles Times 1,033,399 142,649 86.2%
5 The Washington Post 762,009 159,040 79.1%
6 New York Daily News 704,463 55,653 92.1%
7 Chicago Tribune 618,097 106,156 82.8%
8 Newsday (Long Island) 576,345 97,182 83.1%
9 Houston Chronicle 546,799 65,084 88.1%
10 The Dallas Morning News 513,036 65,369 87.3%
11 Chicago Sun-Times 471,031 57,222 87.9%
12 The Boston Globe 464,472 68,806 85.2%
13 San Francisco Chronicle 457,028 60,098 86.9%
14 The Arizona Republic 445,322 70,216 84.2%
15 New York Post 443,951 146,649 67.0%
16 Denver Rocky Mountain News 426,465 0 100.0%
17 The Denver Post 420,033 57,265 86.4%
18 The Star-Ledger (Newark) 407,537 44,149 89.2%
19 The Philadelphia Inquirer 400,385 61,180 84.7%
20 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 366,357 103,808 71.7%
Total 13,694,148 2,547,033 81.4%
Sources: Press Gazette, Audit Bureau of Circulations (2000), and Alliance for Audited Media (2022). 2000 figures are average Monday-Friday print circulation for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2022. 2022 figures are the same for the period ending March 31, 2022, except for two (Chicago and Denver) where the latest audited data available was for the period ending Sept. 30, 2021.

Yikes. That’s almost a CD-level collapse. Remember: Despite how much print has cratered, it is still the top source of revenue for the overwhelming majority of local newspapers. And it heads closer to zero every year.

While the direction (down) is consistent everywhere, there are some interesting differences among these newspapers. USA Today’s reliance on bulk sales to hotels has worsened its 91% decline. (The hotel industry was hit hard during the pandemic, and travelers with smartphones don’t have much need for print newspapers.) The quality national papers (the Times, Journal, and Post) had lower-than-average print declines — in large part, I’d say, because their digital subscription success has allowed them to avoid gutting their newsrooms’ quality and quantity.

Among the metros, the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis is the best performer, losing “only” 72% of its print circulation; you can attribute that to a better-than-average market, better-than-average ownership, and better-than-average execution. The two New York tabloids have taken divergent paths, with the Daily News down 92% vs. the Post’s 67% drop. That’s largely about ownership; the Daily News has been absolutely gutted by Tribune (Tronc!) and Alden to hit earnings targets, while Rupert Murdoch has long been willing to run the Post at a loss.

And of course the saddest number here is the zero next to the Rocky Mountain News, which shut down entirely in 2009. (That The Denver Post could still lose 86% of its print circulation despite losing its local rival deserves special notice. Great job, Alden.)

But here’s the thing: All of these numbers are going to zero. As the case of The Villages shows, print has become a niche product, overwhelmingly for senior citizens. Every year, some of them will die, and some others will have a grandchild help them figure out an iPad.

The primary industry goal for the past two decades has been a transition to digital — so that, when the time came, papers could shut down the presses but live on. It was a reasonable goal. The problem is that it’s 2022 and they’re still counting on print to pay the bills. Gannett, the country’s largest chain, still makes $2 in print for every $1 it makes in digital. In circulation revenue, Gannett still makes $9.60 in print for every $1 in digital. Newspapers have made progress in that transition — just not nearly enough.

Screenshot of The Villages Daily Sun — the 23rd-largest newspaper in America by print circulation — via Google Maps.

  1. The Audit Bureau of Circulations changed its name to the Alliance for Audited Media in 2012. ↩︎
POSTED     June 28, 2022, 7 a.m.
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