The Audit Bureau of Circulations releases figures on year-over-year changes in newspaper circulation every six months, in March and September, and lately, they've been negative for most major daily papers. That's bad news. But there's worse news: If you look at the ABC numbers over several years, you begin to see the magnitude of the circulation decline—and the speed at which it's accelerating. What you see over time, in fact, is more than a decline: It's an avalanche.
For instance: Since 1996 the Los Angeles Times has lost nearly 25 percent of its daily circulation, falling to 775,766 daily copies in the September 2006 ABC report from 1,029,073 in September 1996. Most of that decline has come in the past five years: the drop since 2001 is 20.3 percent. And the pace has picked up in the past year: 8 percent since September 2005; 8.9 percent since March.
Want more? The San Francisco Chronicle's circulation is down 23.2 percent since 1996, with nearly one-third of that drop coming in the past year. The Philadelphia Inquirer is down 22.6 percent in the past 10 years, again with about one-third of that coming in the past year. The Boston Globe is down 18 percent since 1996, with almost 40 percent of that coming since last year. (Newsday's circulation is off a whopping 27.3 percent over 10 years and 25.7 percent over five—but because of the paper's recent circulation scandals, more recent comparisons aren't available. Odds are they aren't good, especially when the numbers are restated to account for the scandals.)
These declines reflect a stunning rejection of newspapers by their customers. The reasons are manifold: lackluster content, competition from the Internet and time pressure on readers are some of the obvious ones; anecdotally, you hear about people who just don't want papers piling up in their homes, which adds an ecological angle. More troublingly, most of these declines are coming in a fairly healthy economy, in local markets that generally are expanding, not contracting. The pie is getting bigger, but newspapers' slices of it are getting smaller.
There are some seasonal variations in the numbers that magnify the declines even further. In some cases, the March measurement periods tend to be a little stronger than September. So the Washington Post had lost 14 percent of its circulation between September 1996 and September 2005; gained some of it back over the winter (The Post aggressively markets the paper in the fall months to subscribers who only get the daily or Sunday editions)—and then lost 9.4 percent of its circulation between March and September of this year. Total loss over 10 years: 16.8 percent. (Revealing disclosure: I dropped my subscription to the daily Post three years ago, for all of the reasons listed above, and I don't miss it. I've even turned down several Post offers to get the daily paper for free. When you can't even give away your product, something's really wrong!)
At some papers, almost all of the decline has happened in the past few years. The Arizona Republic, whose circulation has grown overall since 1996, peaked a few years ago and has dropped sharply since—down 12 percent in the past five years, and down 9.4 percent from March to September. Circulation at the Newark Star-Ledger is down 6.8 percent over the past 10 years—but almost all of that came in the past year, according to ABC. Similarly, the Portland Oregoniam is down 8.2 percent in the past 10 years, and 11 percent in the past five years—with most of that coming in the past year.
The long-term circulation news is not all bad. The national newspapers (USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) are all up over the past 10 years, though they, too, posted declines over the past year.
And then there's the New York Post, the only one of the non-national dailies in the Top 20 to post increases in circulation over the past 10 years (up almost 64 percent) and in the most recent year (up 4.5 percent). You can deride the Post's tabloid approach, but it sure seems to be working with audiences. Maybe there's something readers like about a punchy, tightly edited, entertaining paper. Hey, that's the ticket!
Take the three national papers and the Post out of the totals for the Top 20 and the magnitude of the overall decline jumps out: Together, the 16 biggest papers have lost 11.8 percent of their circulation since 1996 (12.3 percent since 2001), with more than one-third of the drop coming in the past year.
The newspaper industry, of course, spins these numbers; the Newspaper Association of America actually has tried to claim that newspaper readership is UP, when you count passalong copies and visits to Web sites. Uh-huh.
There are other analyses, as well. Alan Mutter has argued that some of the decline has been intentional, as papers have cut back expensive promotional and "vanity" circulation, but that can't be proved without detailed breakdowns of the circulation numbers, which ABC doesn't provide. Conversely, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute suggests that papers are being more aggressive about discounts, which would tend to buoy circulation. And we don't know how the numbers break down between street sales and subscriptions, which would be interesting to see.
Nonetheless, that sound you hear is an avalanche of circulation, moving more quickly with each reporting period. And advertising are following readers out the door. Unless newspapers can figure out a way to reverse the trend, they face a grim future. When you're shedding circulation at 8 or 9 percent a year, it only takes a few years to get to zero.