Top 25 Newspapers' Year-Over-Year Circ Drop Is 'Largest in Decade'

newspaper_X_225It's a variation on the old riddle, "What's black and white, but read all over?"

If you change one word and add two others, the answer to the resulting question -- "What's still mostly black and white, but red all over?" -- would be, based on just-released information about their daily circulation, "all but one of the nation's top 25 newspapers turning in comparative numbers."

The figures come from the newspaper industry's Audit Board of Circulations (ABC), and cover the April-September 2009 time period.

Here are a few paragraphs from Michael Liedtke's coverage of the carnage at the Associated Press, which depends largely on newspaper subscription fees for its lifeblood. Note the "so far" reference in Liedtke's third paragraph:

Circulation at newspapers shrank at an accelerated pace in the past six months, driven in part by stiff price increases imposed by publishers scrambling to offset rapidly eroding advertising sales.

Average daily circulation at 379 U.S. newspapers plunged 10.6 percent in the April-September period from the same six-month stretch last year, according to figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

It's the largest drop recorded so far during the past decade's steady decline in paid readership - a span that has coincided with an explosion of online news sources that don't charge readers for access. Many newspapers also have been reducing delivery to far-flung locales and increasing prices to get more money out of their remaining sales.

The latest decline outstripped a 7.1 percent decrease in the October 2008-March 2009 period and a 4.6 percent decline in last year's April-September window.

I will be taking a more detailed look over a longer term at the situation later, but a few things stick out noticeably in the Top 25 Daily and Sunday lists found at Editor & Publisher:

  • Only one daily paper, the Wall Street Journal, with a +0.61% increase compared to April-September 2008 (corrected from yesterday's originally reported -0.61%), staved off a year-over-year decline. Every other daily listed that has a change recorded (three don't), shows a decline of 5% or more. 15 of the 22 reporting a change had a decline of over 10%.
  • On the Sunday side, the results were only slightly better, and still horrid. Only the Arizona Republic, at -0.87%, got close to holding last year's circulation. The New York Times's 2.66% drop was the runner-up. Seven of the 24 papers reporting changes sank by more than 10%.
  • Speaking of the Times, its daily circ plunged 7.28% to 928,000 copies. After holding its own during the preceding six months largely as a result of transforming itself into a shameless soapbox for candidate/President Barack Obama, ABC's most recent results brought the Times below the million mark for the first time in a very long time with a convincing thud.
  • USA Today's 17% drop, and its accompanying fall from the first-place perch now occupied by the Wall Street Journal, was relayed to parent company Gannett's employees and the general public earlier this month. According to Gannett, this is largely due to travel industry cutbacks in free papers provided to hotel guests. However, the Journal has pointed out that it has made inroads into some of the very hotels that represent USA Today's bread-and-butter revenue source.

Papers which one thought might have bottomed out after steep declines in several previous reporting periods were still among the worst performers this time around. Examples (from the Daily list):

  • The Los Angeles Times, which was over 1 million subscribers not that many years ago, fell 11.05% to 657,000. LA blogger Patterico can give you dozens and dozens of reasons why.
  • The Boston Globe, the supposedly premier paper in all of New England, fell 18.48% to 264,000. That's less than four filled-up Gillette Stadiums.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle dived by 25.82% to 252,000.
What may be the biggest shock is a paper that is no longer on the list.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not make the top 25. A year ago, it was at 275,000. Since the currently reported circulation at the Number 25 St. Petersburg Times is 240,000, that means that the AJC, after a string of previous double-digit drops, decline by at least another 12.7% (35,000 divided by 275,000). Atlanta is the country's ninth-largest metro area.

That the four grievously biased papers identified in the three previous paragraphs are among the serially worst performers especially supports the notion that while the Internet and technology in general have clearly been factors in the print industry's decline, bias in its various forms -- leftist slants, annoying PC language, and the suppression of stories that don't fit the conventional "wisdom" template -- have also contributed to the accelerating decay in many instances. Simply put, they don't get it, and they're paying dearly for it.

Image was found at Memebox.com.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.