Newspaper Circulations in 3-Year Plunge, with Four Exceptions

May 1st, 2008 10:27 AM

Old Media business reporters have a definitionally-incorrect habit of labeling single industries or economic sectors as being "in recession," when the term, as defined here, can only describe national economies or the world economy. Two examples of this are New York Times reporter David Leonhardt's description of manufacturing as being in recession in February 2007 (laughably incorrect, in any event), and the Times's employment of the term "housing recession" 25 times since October 2006, as seen in this Times search (with the phrase in quotes).

But if I wanted to be consistent with this routine form of journalistic malpractice, I would characterize the newspaper business -- at least in terms of the top 25 in the industry's food chain -- not as being in recession, but instead as going through a deep, dark, painful, protracted depression.

A look at circulation changes in the past three years shows just how bad it's been for most of them:


(Sources: March 31, 2008 - Editor & Publisher [opens in new window]; March 31, 2005 - Burrelle's [opens in new window].)

Circulation at the top 25 papers in the US is down 7.4% in the past three years. But if you exclude USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post, which have collectively increased circulation by a bit less than 1%, you will see that the other 21 have declined 12.2% during that time -- a decay rate of over 4.4% per year.

Though I didn't work up a table for Sunday circulations, Editor & Publisher reported earlier this week that Sunday circ was down 4.5% in the past year, including a whopping 9.26%, or over 150,000 copies, at the New York Times.

The situation is probably even worse than the numbers indicate. That's because late last year, the industry's Audit Board of Circulations made changes that enabled the papers to include items that had previously been excluded from circ figures. Among the changes:

.... newspapers will be considered paid by ABC regardless of the price for which the copy was sold.

..... there will no longer have to be payment for third-party copies or Newspapers in Education for the circulation to count.

..... Hotel and employee copies, currently under other-paid, will be reclassified under a new paid-circulation category.

Since the Audit Board's announcement of the changes said that "The specifics will take approximately three years to work out," it's not clear how much circ inflation is included in the just-released figures.

Though its print circulation has declined slightly, it needs to be remembered that the Wall Street Journal has more than made up for that small decline with hundreds of thousands of paid, online-only subscribers.

It should not be lost on the industry that the papers with the best reputations for playing the news straight, fair, and balanced are the ones that are holding their own. But if history is any guide, that obvious lesson will continue to be ignored.

Cross-posted at