That analysis shows that newspapers–especially most large metros–are losing circulation in ever-larger chunks. Alan Mutter has a good historical perspective on this, pointing out that cumulative U.S. daily newspaper circulation has dropped 23.6 percent over the past 24 years, even as population is growing. As Alan points out, the overall decline has gotten worse over the past five years.
That's the good news, believe it or not. Here's the bad: If you look at large papers individually, you see that many of the declines have been even steeper, especially in the past couple of years. I charted this a couple of years ago, and I've updated that table with the latest circulation numbers:
For some of these papers, a 23.6 percent drop would be good news. Look at the Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe and Newsday over the past seven years–they're all down by more than 30 percent, and the San Francisco Chronicle is right behind them. Every paper on the list–except the national papers, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today–has seen double-digit circulation declines since 2001; most have double-digit declines, or close to it, just in the past two years.
Longer term–back to 1996–the news is similarly bleak. For the most part, aside from the big national papers, these large metros have seen huge dropoffs in circulation; the exceptions, such as they are, are the Arizona Republic, which was still growing rapidly in the early 1990s but has since peaked and begun declining; and the New York Post, which was still growing circulation until a couple of years ago, and is now sliding along with the others.
Otherwise, the 1996-2008 numbers are pretty ugly, and they echo–if not amplify–the broader trends that Mutter describes. The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Francisco Chronicle are the big losers, but papers like the Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Newark Star-Ledger and Washington Post all have posted hefty circulation declines in the past 12 years.
As the chart shows, the declines over the past two years are disproportionately large compared to the seven- and 12-year spans–again, despite growing population and, until recently, a healthy economy. In other words, the circulation slide is worsening. It's hard to see, especially with the economy in the tank, any sort of moderation of the downward trend. And that, in turn, chases off advertisers and leads to even more budget-cutting pain.
A couple years ago, a sunny-side-up newspaper editor said to me, "Well, we hope that circulation just declines to its natural level, and then plateaus." There's no sign whatsover that it's doing that. If anything, the decline is accelerating. What if the natural circulation level hypothesized by that editor is, shudder, something like zero? At the rate things are going, we may find out soon.