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Intro | Content Analysis | Audience | Economics | Ownership | News Investment | Public Attitudes | Conclusion | Charts & Tables

Audience

Newspaper circulation is in decline.

The root problems go back to the late 1940s, when the percentage of Americans reading newspapers began to drop. But for years the U.S. population was growing so much that circulation kept rising and then, after 1970, remained stable.

That changed in 1990 when circulation began to decline in absolute numbers.

And the problem now appears to be more than fewer people developing the newspaper habit. People who used to read every day now read less often. Some people who used to read a newspaper have stopped altogether.

Today, just more than half of Americans (54 percent) read a newspaper during the week, somewhat more (62 percent) on Sundays, and the number is continuing to drop.1

Overall, some 55 million newspapers are sold each day, 59 million on Sunday.

At the same time, the number of newspapers in the country has been on a steady decline for even longer, dropping nearly 1 percent a year for now two decades to 1,457 in 2002.2

Where are readers going? It is impossible to say fully. Some people may be getting news online, some perhaps from cable television. Some may be opting out of traditional news sources. Others may be sharing copies of a paper among multiple readers. Many people now read newspapers only occasionally, a couple days a week, but no longer everyday. Much of the loss came from people no longer reading afternoon papers. Whatever it is, these people are not paying everyday for the journalism produced by newspapers, even if they are reading it in other outlets such as online.

Some newspaper companies are now de-emphasizing paid circulation and pushing total readership as more meaningful. Readership helps capture multiple readers in a single household or people reading a copy in public settings like a coffee shop or waiting room. And readership studies can provide advertisers with more detailed information about who reads, what they read and how much time they spend with a newspaper. But the emphasis on readership is also a sign that the circulation story is not a good one.

Daily Circulation

In some ways, it is remarkable how long newspaper circulation remained so stable. From World War II until 1970, as the United States saw tremendous economic growth, a rising and changing population, a move to suburbia, and the advent of television, the number of newspapers sold each day in the United States was still growing.

During this time, a smaller percentage of Americans read a newspaper every day - especially after the evolution of TV news in the 1960s. The erosion, however, was outpaced by population growth - a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. households between 1970 and 1990.3 By 1970, indeed, newspaper reading in the United States had reached a new peak. Some 62 million newspapers were sold in the country every day.4

U.S. Daily Newspaper Circulation
Weekday and Sunday editions, measured in five-year increments, 1940 to 2000
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

By 1990, however, even the boost from a growing population was not enough to maintain how many newspapers were sold each day. Circulation began dropping at the rate of 1 percent every year from 1990 to 2002. By 2002, weekday circulation of U.S. newspapers had dropped 11 percent in 12 years.5

The real rate of circulation decline could be even greater. The Audit Bureau of Circulations changed the way it counted circulation to include bulk sales of papers to places like airlines and hotels for free distribution. These sales are technically "bought" by the hotel or airline, often through a barter exchange, but can make up a significant part of total circulation. For example, 46 percent of USA Today's circulation - 987,670 papers - comes from bulk sales.6 And the ABC rules have been liberalized in other smaller ways through the years, masking even further the true extent of circulation loss, according to Rick Edmonds at the Poynter Institute who has examined this closely.7

The vast majority of circulation loss in the last 30 years has been at afternoon papers, and much of that from papers that ceased publishing. Some other losses in overall circulation since 1990 came from papers purposely trimming delivery to distant outlying communities. Thus some of the loss does not suggest free-fall. Indeed, morning circulation in 2001 was the highest it has ever been - 46.8 million - before declining slightly in 2002 (the first decline in morning circulation since 1975).8

To fully appreciate the drop in the newspaper's popularity, it is also useful to take a closer look at so-called "household penetration" - the number of newspapers sold as a percentage of all households in the country. In one sense, penetration reveals the full extent of newspapers' declining appeal. In 1950, 123 percent of households bought a newspaper (in other words there were 1.23 papers sold per household.) By 1990, only 67 percent of households bought a newspaper. By 2000, it was 53 percent.9

U.S. Daily Newspaper Circulation vs. Number of Households
Number in millions, measured in 10-year increments
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data; U.S. Census Bureau

In another sense, however, penetration reveals the endurance of newspapers as an advertising medium. While papers were losing audience, their new rivals were more fragmented - multiple television broadcast stations in each town, 40 cable channels and eventually myriad Web sites. Even if the percentage of households buying a newspaper has dropped to almost half, that still makes the lone newspaper in town the most wide-reaching single buy for advertisers.10

Sunday Circulation

Sunday circulation, for many years, saw a different trend. Newspapers found that many of their readers were tending to read less often, but more on Sundays and a few occasional other days. Advertisers, moreover, wanted to be in the Sunday paper, when people had more time. Sunday papers swelled in size, and thus in appeal, and more papers launched Sunday editions (there were 913 in 2002, up 56 percent from1970).11 As a consequence, while daily circulation after World War II was flat, Sunday circulation continued to grow, peaking in 1990.

Since then, however, Sunday circulation has been dropping too, like weekday, but at a slower pace (0.5 percent annually versus 1 percent for weekdays). By 2002, Sunday circulation was at 58.8 million, down 6 percent since its peak in 1990.12

Reading Habits

Beyond the numbers, it is also helpful to examine reading habits to understand what was driving people away from newspapers, and why it accelerated after 1990. Part of the explanation, of course, is that lifestyle and technological changes altered the news business. The population shift away from urban to suburban America - and the problems that created for home delivery - helped erode the afternoon paper. The evening paper was a perfect match for the 1950s factory worker who came home at 4 p.m. to a stay-at-home mom and a nuclear family. But factory jobs have steadily given way to other forms of employment. Nuclear families are much less the norm. And, married or not, most moms themselves now work. Morning circulation first surpassed evening in 1982. By 2002, there were nearly five and half morning newspapers sold for each evening newspaper.14

Number of U.S. Daily Newspapers
Weekday and Sunday editions, 5-year increments, 1940 to 2000
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

But as those shifts were occurring, the newspaper industry also made choices that had important and likely negative consequences on readership and circulation. Newspapers make roughly 80 percent of their revenue from advertising, and only 20 percent from circulation.15 Indeed, it costs most papers more to print each paper than they actually sell it for, but higher sales allow the papers to charge higher advertising rates. Influenced in part by advertisers who increasingly wanted to focus exclusively on people who were likely to buy a lot of goods, newspaper companies in the 1970s and 1980s decided to chase demographics rather than readers. Around the same time, many newspapers also began embarking on pricing strategies that further made the newspaper even more forbidding to less affluent audiences.

That shift toward elite audiences dictated where the circulation declines occurred. By and large, when the afternoon papers that appealed more to working class readers died, those readers stopped reading newspapers.

People can debate which came first - the disappearance of middle-class audiences or the pricing and coverage strategies that made newspapers even less appealing to those audiences. Whichever, they reinforced each other. In the short run, that may have made economic sense. Why add readers who advertisers are not interested in, when the cost of producing and delivering additional newspapers does not pay for itself without new advertising dollars to underwrite it?

But in the long run, as the circulation numbers suggest, the strategy raises questions. As the children of these lost readers become more affluent and influential, can it be assumed that they will just gravitate to a newspaper no matter what? And how can a publisher grow a business in the long-term if it is not growing its audience?

Average Circulation of U.S. Daily Newspapers
Weekday and Sunday editions, measured in five-year increments, 1940 to 2000
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

The Rise of National Newspapers

An exception to the 20-year slide in circulation has been national papers. USA Today has gone from a dead start to a circulation of 2.1 million daily. There is no exact measure of its impact on other dailies, but it clearly supplants local papers for conventiongoers and other travelers and represents competition to the other two nationally circulated dailies, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Only 14 percent of USA Today's circulation comes from home delivery. The Wall Street Journal holds its own, going back over the 2 million mark (with the addition in the most recent ABC audit of 300,000 paid subscribers to its online edition).16 Three-quarters of its circulation is attributed to home delivery and subscription sales spread across the country. Less obviously, The New York Times has gradually shifted from a metropolitan New York paper with some national circulation to having nearly half its circulation outside the New York City area.17

In addition to a variety of free Internet news sites and the rise of CNN and NPR, the competitive climate for providing a basic national and international news report has grown far tougher for the typical metropolitan or small-city newspaper. Together, the top 7 percent of the nation's newspapers (105 out of 1,457) command 55 percent of the total circulation.18

Percent of Newspapers and Total Circulation by Circulation Category, 2002
pie chart sample

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Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook 2003
* Due to rounding, percents do not add up to 100.

Number of U.S. Daily Newspapers with Circulation Over 50,000
1950 to 2000, measured in 5-year increments
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

Who Is Reading: A Question Of Demographics

In trying to assess circulation and readership trends, there are other elements of demographics that need to be understood beyond income. Three stand out.

  • The problem for the newspaper industry is not just young readers. People of every age bracket - except those over 65 - are starting to read newspapers less.

  • The newspaper industry is failing to attract newer immigrant groups. The backbone of the industry remains non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two population groups not growing much.

  • Papers are losing among people at all educational levels, although that trend may have reversed somewhat since September 11.

Age Groups

As always, young people appear to read newspapers less than their elders. According to 2003 data from Scarborough Research, a consumer market company, only 40 percent of people aged 18 to 24 read a paper on weekdays, and less than half on Sundays (48 percent). The numbers are slightly higher for people 25-34 (41 percent weekdays and 52 percent Sundays).19

Weekday Newspaper Readership by Age Group
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

 

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Age Group
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

The more important trend today may be what is happening to readers between the ages of 34 and 64, the people who should be the prime target for becoming citizens engaged in civil society. These are the people buying houses, having children, worrying about schools, building their careers, running for office, becoming leaders in their communities. Their numbers are declining as well, and in some cases at a faster rate than for people under 34.

These findings are borne out by new studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. While its earlier studies of what it called the "Age of Indifference" suggested that young people were not acquiring the news consumption habits at the same rate in their 20s as was true of earlier generations, the newest survey on news consumption, in 2002, found evidence that developing the habit was no longer the lone issue. People who had become newspaper consumers had stopped.20

The bright spot for newspapers remains, as it has for some years, older people. Readership for people over 65 is just barely declining - 1 percent since 1999 for both daily and Sunday. One question is whether Baby Boomers, who will begin to turn 65 in 2011, will read newspapers as heavily as people that age do now. If so, that could be a boon to newspapers. If not, more trouble looms.

This is one reason why current experiments by papers like The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune to produce free papers aimed at young adults (18-to-34-year-olds) are being so closely watched.

To many in the newspaper industry, the fact that newspapers began only recently to experiment with such papers reflects the industry's slowness to innovate and to invest in research and development generally. These kinds of enterprises are typically defensive moves to protect the franchise. They are most often initiated out of fear that a portion of the market is slipping away or has never developed the newspaper reading habit. Free papers first appeared as alternative papers many years ago and were considered competition for entertainment advertising but were never thought to be a serious competitor or an idea that the metro papers should try.

Such thinking is explained, in part, by the old newspaper business model for doing something new: return on investment. There had to be projected revenue to offset costs of a new venture in a relatively short term. Newspapers were not likely to favor such investments solely for their long-term value without a clear prospect for a new revenue stream. Indeed, even some of these experiments are projected to generate revenue and are being conducted at limited cost.

Ethnicity and Readership

The second major area of concern for the newspaper industry may be ethnicity. The newspaper industry was built, more than a century ago, by populist publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and E.W. Scripps on the appeal of newspapers to the masses, particularly immigrants. Often these publishers themselves were immigrants, as in the case of Pulitzer, Scripps, Adolph Ochs and others.

The industry, now run by corporations rather than (often immigrant) entrepreneurs, has moved in a very different direction (see Reading Habits, above). At the beginning of the 21st century, readership is lowest among the country's two fastest-growing minority populations - Asians and Hispanics. The industry is seeking to address this now. For instance, this year newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth joined the paper in Miami in offering Spanish-language editions. The Los Angeles Times is launching a Spanish-language edition in Southern California to compete with its former partner, the family-owned La Opinion, which in turn joined forces with a New York Spanish-language daily, El Diario/La Prensa, so that they could compete with the major newspaper chains for major advertisers. This battleground is a trend to monitor.

Among Asians, weekday readership in 2003 had dropped 5 percentage points in the four years since 1999 (to just 46 percent). That is a faster rate of decline than for whites (down 3 percentage points in that time) or African Americans (down 2 percentage points).21

Among the fastest-growing group in America, those who describe themselves as Latino or Hispanic, there has been a 4-point drop, again higher than for whites or African Americans. This group, indeed, has the lowest weekday readership rates of the four groups (just 35 percent, down from 39 percent four years earlier). The same rapid declines are true on Sunday.22

Data on the Spanish language presses (see ethnic and alternative news chapter) suggest that these immigrants are reading newspapers, but they are choosing Spanish-language papers over those in English.

Weekday Newspaper Readership by Race-Ethnicity
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

 

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Race-Ethnicity
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

Education

While people with more education remain more likely to read a newspaper, declines in readership have been occurring regardless of education level.

Indeed, in the last four years, according to Scarborough, readership has actually fallen somewhat faster among those with four-year college degrees than among those with only high school diplomas.

Among college graduates, the group most likely to report reading the paper, readership has fallen 4 percentage points in the last four years on weekdays (from 63 to 59 percent) and 7 points on Sundays (from 76 to 69 percent). Among high school graduates, the decline was 3 percentage points on weekdays and 4 on Sundays (54 to 51 percent and 64 to 60 percent, respectively).

Readers with post-graduate degrees, however, reverse the trend. From 1999 to 2002 their readership was declining along with the other ages. But in 2003, their daily readership shot up 10 percentage points from one year earlier to 68 percent.

Weekday Newspaper Readership by Education
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

 

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Education
Percentage reading newspapers in an average week, 1999-2003
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Scarborough Research unpublished survey data

Education does correlate to readership. The most recent survey data from the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that 52 percent of college graduates reported reading a newspaper "yesterday," compared with 41 percent of high school graduates and 24 percent of people without a high school degree.23

Percent of People Reading a Newspaper the Day Before
By education, June 2002
pie chart sample

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Click here to view footnotes for this section.

Newspapers<Previous | Next > | Home

Intro | Content Analysis | Audience | Economics | Ownership | News Investment | Public Attitudes | Conclusion | Charts & Tables

 

Photo-Television reporter

Tracking the Decline In Daily Newspapers

The decline in readers has also meant a decline in the number of newspapers in America.

From World War II until 1980, the number of newspapers remained static - at about 1,750 newspapers in the United States. Some big-city newspapers died, but suburban papers and small community dailies took their place. After 35 years of television, the cold war, Vietnam, the Me Decade, Howard Cosell and the "Gong Show," in 1980 there were 1,745 daily newspapers in the United States, only four fewer than the number in 1945.

After 1980, however, the situation changed, and the number of newspapers began an uninterrupted annual decline (-0.8 percent). By 2002, there were just 1,457 papers left in the country, 17 percent fewer than 22 years before.13

 
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