The Future of Newspapers

Last updated: July 1, 2013

 

Introduction to the Future of Newspapers

“Newspapers in this country are not dying, they are committing suicide.”
‒ Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni

“It’s nice to see that the printed word is still, at least for now, the most powerful medium for reporting on the death of the printed word.”
‒ From The Onion, May 2008

The newspaper industry leads the charge to provide compelling proof that the Internet really is destroying traditional ink-on-paper publishing. The data has been troubling for a long time, and gets more convincing each day. A lot of analyses gloss over the data which demonstrates that the decline in newspaper readership and circulation easily predates the Internet. The story of the decline of the daily newspaper goes beyond the web. Furthermore the U.S. trends are not fully mirrored worldwide ‒ is that because of lagging indicators or fundamentally different forces at work?

 

The enduring strength of newspapers is their local coverage, from community news to financial to entertainment. The reality is that city newspapers have more “feet on the ground” than any of the competing city web sites. The smartest newspaper managers are translating their community strength onto the web. Community newspapers and other weekly newspapers seem to be largely avoiding the fate of their daily brethren.

Source: Ad Age/Ipsos Observer American Consumer Survey

My overall rating for the future of the traditional newspaper industry, first in North America, and spreading rapidly to all devloped countries, is very negative. My hopes and expectations of a renaissance for the industry, just as determined.

Newspaper Industry Overview

Copyright 2006 by The Economist

The illustration above appeared on the cover of the August 24, 2006 edition of The Economist. The subhead was “The most useful bit of the media is disappearing. A cause for concern, but not for panic.” The article is essentially optimistic. A key paragraph states: “The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account-trying them in the court of public opinion. The Internet has expanded this court. Anyone looking for information has never been better equipped. People no longer have to trust a handful of national papers or, worse, their local city paper. News-aggregation sites such as Google News draw together sources from around the world. The website of Britain’s Guardian now has nearly half as many readers in America as it does at home.”

Is the picture so rosy?

On the surface, newspaper publishing in North America appears to be in big trouble; but then, the newspaper industry been in ever-increasing trouble for a long time.

When I first began this study nine years ago, I offered this slide (based on a data source I can no longer locate ‒ sorry).

Beyond that figure is one reported in The New York Times on March 26, 2007: “Newspaper circulation nationally reached its peak in 1984, when there were 1,600 morning and afternoon paid dailies with a circulation of 63 million….Today there are 1,450 paid dailies with a circulation of 53 million.”

An article from late 2006 in the American Journalism Review takes the newspaper circulation data a step further in pointing out that “in 1950 there were 1,772 dailies with a total circulation of 53.8 million and 549 Sunday papers with 46.6 million. But since 1980, the number and circulation of dailies has declined fairly steadily, slipping to 1,452 last year, with circulation down to 53.3 million – below where it was 55 years ago, despite nearly a doubling in the size of the national population.” (Italics mine.)

Clearly this is a troubled medium. Equally clear is that the problem in newspaper circulation pre-dates the Internet by some years. Theories abound. Radio and television must surely shoulder some of the blame; just as likely is that changing lifestyles impacted newspaper readership regardless of competing media.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) self-refers as the “Gold Standard in Media Audits” and is the place to go if you want to find out current U.S. newspaper or magazine circulation figures. (In November 2012 it changed its name to the Alliance for Audited Media, “to more accurately portray its evolving leadership in media verification.”)

Although a non-profit organization, it was formed by the interested parties: advertisers, ad agencies and publishers. Unfortunately also, you must be a member ‒ they’re not giving this “sensitive” information away ‒ and so it’s impossible for the public to get up-to-the-minute newspaper circulation data (one needs to pony up somewhere between $100 and $2500 for an associate membership). You can find some generic data but not specifics.

But the ongoing decline in newspaper circulation in North America is not a well-kept secret, and if the ABC won’t spill the beans, others will.

According to a September 2008 report in Media Life Magazine, “Newspapers have been struggling for years and continue to.

“Nielsen has local newspapers down 7.3 percent from the first half of 2007 and national newspapers down 8.1 percent. (Robert) Coen is forecasting declines of 8 percent and 7 percent for the full year, respectively, while TNS is projecting a decline of just under 1 percent for all newspapers.”

A May 2005 article in The Washington Post reported that “circulation at 814 of the nation’s largest daily newspapers declined 1.9 percent over the six months ended March 31 compared with the same period last year…The decline continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information.”

As the chart above makes clear, the downward newspaper circulation trend continues. This chart was accompanied in the report The State of the News Media 2008 with the following remarks: “Searching for…good news in the generally downward trend, at least circulation losses are not accelerating (though now advertising revenue declines are). Some of the big losers of recent years, for instance, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post were back closer to the industry average in circulation losses in 2007. But these are pyrrhic victories at best.”

An April 2008 report on the San Diego Union’s website reports that “circulation fell sharply at most top U.S. newspapers in the latest reporting period, (the Audit Bureau of Circulations) said Monday, with the exception of the two largest national dailies, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.” The ever-evasive ABC declined to provide composite numbers, but a chart of the top twenty dailies is available. The Dallas Morning News featured the steepest decline, with a 10.6 percent reduction.

Not surprisingly advertising revenue growth is mirroring newspaper circulation trends. (This chart was not updated in the 2008 report, but from numerous other sources we know the results would be grim.)

Newspaper Circulation, Readership and Advertising

As with other periodicals where advertising is a substantial source of revenue, there is constant conflict between newspaper circulation, readership and advertising.

According to a March 2007 article by John Chisholm in Newspapers & Technology, “Benchmarks show that on average newspapers are left with around a third of their circulation revenue after costs are deducted (however) in the United States where churn levels are high and subscription rates are low, (circulation) costs can exceed revenues.”

A study from First Research claims that “almost 70 percent of (newspaper) industry revenue comes from sales of advertising space…and only about 20 percent from subscription and single-copy sales…” (I can’t see in the abbreviated newspaper industry report where the other 10% comes from!)

If circulation is not the answer to the newspaper industry’s profitability, obviously advertising is, and newspaper advertising rates have traditionally been based on total readership, rather than circulation alone. The theory has more merit in the magazine industry: that more than one person might read a copy of a particular issue. The newspaper industry found gold in the concept, and with its partner-in-numbers, ABC, began to measure total newspaper readership as an adjunct to circulation.

As Rick Edmonds points out in a 2002 article on Poynter, “The good old days of 70 to 80 percent penetration, households with two parents and 2.2 kids, and a dad who came home from the factory at 4:30 to read the Evening Bulletin are long gone. Editors have been forced to take note of that growing share of audience that is on-the-fly and only sometimes attentive.”

He offers the following chart to show how newspapers illustrate total readership vs. circulation (with the help of ABC):

As he correctly ponders: “Why are people passing the paper around briskly in Fresno but not so much in Louisville?”

I would argue that pass-along readership is generally overstated, and often offset by “incomplete readership” – the many who find time to look at only a portion of the newspaper, missing perhaps the bulk of the ads (or having no time to absorb the advertising message). When it comes to the newspaper industry, circulation is the more reliable figure.

Hence newspaper ad rates are increasingly focused on the latter figure, rather than on the very difficult to verify “total readership” number, particularly as the Internet makes the practice of audience measurement and response more of a science than a black art.

Going Deeper

There’s no question in my mind that the single most authoritative report on the state of journalism is The State of the News Media 2008, published last March by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a non-political, nonpartisan research institute that is part of the Pew Research Center in Washington. (The report is available here in sections, with excellent interactive features. The full report is comprehensive, totalling more than 160,000 words.) It covers most key media: newspapers, television, radio, magazines and online journalism. It also identifies trends, marks key indicators and notes areas for further inquiry.

The easiest way to access the full findings is via the Introduction. It is relatively brief, and certainly incisive. Here are just a few of the conclusions from the 2007 edition concerning the publishing industry here (in a different sequence than they appear in the report). I’ll leave it to you to peruse the 2008 summary, although the previous reports remain online.

1. “…the math suggests (that publishers) almost certainly must find a way to get consumers to pay for digital content.” The summary continues: “…the notion that the Internet is free is already false. Those who report the news just aren’t sharing in the fees.”

This suggestion of course remains anathema to many publishers and most Web users. All of the newspaper trends we’ve been recently witnessing point to advertising footing the bill, not users, per se. The New York Times recently abandoned revenue from over 200,000 paid subscribers in favor of an ad-only model (there were nearly 750,000 total users, but about two-thirds gained access as part of a print subscription).

Advertising is still a largely workable model for many publishing media. It is suffering, but far from dead. Are we certain that advertising alone can actually continue to fund the enormous content treasures which lie on the Web?

Today’s fad is tomorrow’s dumb idea. Or as The Economist stated a few years ago, “A tradition is only an innovation that worked.”

2. The summary points out (as we’ve seen elsewhere) that “the signs are clearer that advertising works differently online than in older media…. The consequence is that advertisers may not need journalism as they once did, particularly online.”

I think this is probably the most startling observation in the entire report. The notion that journalism, per se, as we’ve known it, is losing import as a direct result of the media transition to the Internet is a radical proposition. As shocking as this may be to hundreds of thousands of journalists and the support personnel that make journalism available and accessible, the evidence is compelling.

3. “While journalists are becoming more serious about the Web, no clear models of how to do journalism online really exist yet, and some qualities are still only marginally explored.” Another trenchant observation. Is the failure of journalism’s transition to the Web more a factor of point #2 above, that journalism as it has been known, on television and in print, no longer compels, or more that journalists have not learned how to make online journalism compelling in this new medium?

Seeking Circulation Equilibrium

A fascinating and important article from The New York Times (“Why Big Newspapers Applaud Some Declines in Circulation,” October 1, 2007) puts an entirely different spin on the problems facing the future of newspapers. The lead to the article states its argument clearly: “As the newspaper industry bemoans falling circulation, major papers around the country have a surprising attitude toward a lot of potential readers: Don’t bother.” The article’s author, Richard Pérez-Peña, continues, “The big American newspapers sell about 10 percent fewer copies than they did in 2000, and while the migration of readers to the Web is usually blamed for that decline, much of it has been intentional (emphasis mine). Driven by marketing and delivery costs and pressure from advertisers, many papers have decided certain readers are not worth the expense involved in finding, serving and keeping them.

Pérez-Peña points to a trend consistent with advertising in all media: certain customers are worth reaching. But big numbers, by themselves, no longer impress. The Internet has magnified a publishing trend that probably first flowered with controlled circulation magazines: identify the customer, and deliver the right ad to the right customer at the right time in the appropriate medium.

The Newspaper Association of America is quoted in the article offering the figure that “the average cost of getting a new subscription order, including discounts, was $68 in 2006, more than twice as much as in 2002.” And most of these new subscribers disappear after the promotion ends. “So (according to Pérez-Peña) the industry is accepting that circulation will fall and hoping to find a level that can be sustained with little effort. As a result, the subscription churn rate – the number of people who drop their newspaper each year divided by the total number of subscribers – fell to 36 percent last year from 54 percent in 2000, the newspaper association says.”

The Unsteady March of Newspapers to the Web

A September 2007 article in eMarketer points out that “The Newspaper Association of America has reported double-digit growth for the last 13 consecutive quarters of online newspaper advertising spending, which reached $795.7 million in the second quarter of 2007.”

Copyright 2007 by eMarketer

The newspaper industry has struggled as hard as most publishing industries to find the right way to balance their traditional print product with an appropriately complementary  and compelling online presence. They’ve struggled even harder to figure out how to make money from online efforts.

Newspapers succeeded most easily in the local online ad markets, but “according to Borrell Associates, (while) newspapers controlled more than 35% of all locally spent online advertising in 2006 that dominance is declining: Online newspaper share decreased 8.2 points over a two year-period.” (Reported in Editor & Publisher.) As a result newspaper companies are teaming up either with Yahoo or Google in complex cooperative deals that should benefit both sides, whether from ad revenue sharing, increased exposure or competitive positioning (both for the newspapers and the fiercely competitive search engine companies.)

Optimists increasingly feel that the newspapers companies are finally starting to “get it” when it comes to the Web, and that they’re not too late to the party. Pessimists (realists?) worry whether the very rapid decline in newspaper circulation and ad revenue can be offset sufficiently through successful Web programs.

Bright Moments

This article must read as if the news is all bad for the newspaper industry. That is not the case. There are three relatively bright spots on an otherwise gloomy horizon: free dailies, community newspapers, and looking outward toward the global newspaper industry. I’ll cover these in order.

Free Dailies

According to a well-written analysis by Heidi Dawley in Media Life (February 2007), “‘Free papers are reinvigorating the market,” says Larry Kilman, director of communications at WAN [the World Association of Newspapers]. “In many developed markets it is clear that there is a long-term decline in paid-for newspaper circulation but it is being picked up on other platforms.’

“For instance, in the U.S., the circulation of paid-for papers dropped 4 percent from 2001 to 2005, hitting 53.3 million. It also dropped 2.3 percent in 2005 compared to the year earlier.

“But that was nearly made up for by the growth of free papers, whose circulation grew by 127.9 percent over the five years, to 3.3 million copies. By 2005 free papers accounted for 5.8 percent of the U.S. newspaper market by circulation, up from 2.5 percent, according to WAN. The number of free titles grew to 34 from 19 over the period.

“Free papers saw similar growth in Europe. By 2005, free papers had grown to make up 15.3 percent of all daily newspaper circulation, up from 7.6 percent, having grown 104 percent over the period, to 16.4 million. There are now 87 free daily newspapers in Europe.

“The largest free daily in the world is Leggo in Italy, according to WAN, which has a circulation of just over 1 million. Metro in Britain follows with 977,000. The first entry for the U.S. is also Metro with a circulation of 668,000.”

Not surprisingly the news is not all rosy, particularly in the current economic downturn. A blog entry by Roy Greenslade at the UK’s Guardian newspaper called “Free newspapers feel the pinch as advertising slump takes hold,” asks if we are beginning to witness the bursting of the free newspaper bubble?

Greenslade continues: “The world’s largest publisher of freesheets, the Swedish-owned Metro International (MI), is beset by problems. It is clearly involved in a substantial retrenchment in various countries, having reported a loss of £1.5m in the second quarter this year. It is also rethinking its strategy in the United States. Clearly, the advertising downturn in America and Europe has hit the company.”

The entry concludes on a particularly downbeat note: “But frees are an interim stage between paid-for newsprint newspapers and online ‘papers.’ They will probably survive longer than paid-fors. Their main effect, however, is to convince the emerging news-reading audience that news is, or should be, freely available. Again, that leads inevitably to an online future.”

If you’re interested in pursuing this subject further, the site to visit is Newspaper Innovation: Daily Blogging on Free Newspapers. It’s excellent.

Community Papers

In the U.S. they’re often referred to as “Suburban Newspapers,” in Canada they’re called “Community Newspapers,” but either way these are the weekly papers that are published weekly in smaller communities. It’s a little confusing given that most large cities in North America also have one or two free weeklies, that fill a similar but not identical roll as the small community weeklies.

The latest data I can find on these papers paints a much healthier picture for circulation and ad sales than we find with the dailies. In June of this year the Suburban Newspapers of America (SNA) reported that “Suburban and community newspaper executives report optimism and growth. This is the finding of a beta report that included financial and other data from many of the largest members of the trade association Suburban Newspapers of America. The beta companies represent total circulation of 12.5 million and approximately $2 billion in annual advertising revenue. These newspapers provide much needed hyper-local news and information – typically not found anywhere else – to the communities that they serve.

“The beta results showed that 2007 was a growth year for the community newspaper industry with advertising revenue up .5%, as compared to the overall industry decline of 7.9% reported by the Newspaper Association of America.

“First quarter 2008 results reported a decline in advertising revenue of 2.7% – primarily related to economic factors influencing the real estate and automotive industries, two of the largest categories for community newspapers. In most cases, local revenue was up for the companies represented. This 2.7% decline for the quarter compares to double digit decreases reported by most of the publicly-traded companies that are comprised of large metro daily newspapers (reported declines ranged from 10% to 19%).”

The Canadian equivalent, Community Media Canada (now part of Newspapers Canada) notes first of all that not all of these papers are weeklies. 646 publish weekly; 67 twice-weekly and 29 offer three editions or more weekly. Less than 50% charge for subscriptions. Data in CMC’s Snapshot 2007 indicated strength in the industry: “Community newspapers are a growing medium across Canada. As circulation at daily newspapers declines, community newspapers are growing, since they maintain their monopoly on truly local content. This fact has not gone unnoticed by major corporate stakeholders… Recent data shows that advertising in community newspapers exceeds $1 billion annually. Revenue from flyer distribution-a closely aligned sector-is also on the rise. In fact, since 2000, industry revenue has increased 26 per cent.”

The Global Newspaper Industry

In the midst of this gloom, the February 15,2007 issue of The Economist reported that in India there are some 300 big newspapers, and they experienced a 12.9% increase in circulation that year. Indian government figures shows growth of newspaper and periodical titles at nearly 50% from 2001 to 2010. The publications are in 16 different languages, with Hindi the number one language and English number two. Newspaper competition is fierce, and the profits are substantial.

I remember some 15-years years ago at the drupa trade show in Germany (drupa focuses on the printing business) meeting Naresh Khanna, the publisher and editor of Indian Printer & Publisher magazine. That year everyone was speculating about the possible impact of the Internet, but Naresh said to me: “Oh, we don’t care very much about the Internet in India. We’re just excited that we’ll soon have color pictures in our newspapers.”

The global newspaper industry is continuing to grow because of emerging economies like those of India and China, even while the future of the newspaper industry is seriously threatened in the mature (largely Western) countries.

The best source for data on world newspaper trends is the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers which groups “76 national newspaper associations, individual newspaper executives in 102 nations, 10 news agencies, and 10 regional press organisations. It is a non-profit, non-government organisation. In all, the Association represents more than 18,000 publications on five continents.” The PDF executive summary of its “World Digital Media Trends 2008″ provides lots of data showing that simply focusing on the North American newspaper market is not indicative of the state of newspaper publishing around the world.

There’s lots of data out there, and a link on Businessweek looks at newspaper publishing in Germany, which continues to thrive by most of the indicators we consider important.

Conclusion

There appears to be very little doubt that newspapers in the United States are facing the greatest threat in their history. The numbers grow more grim with each new report. Does the United States truly represent the future of the newspaper industry, or might the specific conditions here be anomalous? I believe they do actually represent the shape of things to come, hence my very negative rating at the start of this article.

But the story is far from over. It’s a fascinating ride.

References

1. The most fascinating, unbiased and authoritative source of information about what’s happening in the newspaper industry is provided by the Pew Research Center and its various cousins.

The report I quote from extensively in the main article in this section, The State of the Newsmedia 2008: An Annual Report On American Journalism (check for more recent versions), is from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

2. Of course newspapers are well covered by trade associations. Already some of the uber-associations have dwindled or disappeared. One place to start is with the INMA: “Founded in 1930, the not-for-profit International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA) today has nearly 5,000 members in 80+ countries. Members are top managers at the world’s leading media companies, typically c-level executives: chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief marketing officers, chief audience officers, chief advertising officers, chief digital officers, and chief editors.”

3. The big U.S. trade group is the NAA, the Newspaper Association of America:

“NAA is a nonprofit organization representing the $55 billion newspaper industry. NAA members account for nearly 90 percent of the daily circulation in the United States and a wide range of nondaily U.S. newspapers. NAA also has many Canadian and International members.”

4. The Canadian equivalent is the Canadian Newspaper Association, now Newspapers Canada, which offers a range of industry-oriented resources.

5. WAN-Ifra

WAN-Ifra, based in Darmstadt, Germany, is “the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, or WAN-IFRA, the global organisation of the world’s press, representing more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries.” It was created “by the July 2009 merger of the World Association of Newspapers and IFRA, the research and service organisation for the news publishing industry.”

6. Three fine publications:

Columbia Journalism Review

American Journalism Review

And the always-excellent Canadian Ryerson Review of Journalism.

7. A couple of good blogs (there are numerous others):

WAN-Ifra offers The Editors Weblog

Reflections of a Newsosaur is always incisive…

8. Bob Sacks, aka BoSacks, a learned veteran of the American media industry, has a very good website, although if you can digest three entries per day, you can subscribe to his essential industry newsletter.

9. The Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard is the cat’s pajama’s: a fascinating exploration and reference, or as the site states: “a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.”

10. Goodbye to Newspapers?

Russell Baker is a veteran of this war and those that have preceded it. His fascinating article in the New York Review of Books is well worth the read.