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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute

Over all, the audience for what newspapers produce continued to grow in 2008. But for an industry that for advertisers must still separate print readers from online, the news was not good.

The declines in print newspaper circulation, which had begun to accelerate alarmingly in late 2003, only became deeper in 2008.

Daily and Sunday Circulation Declines
Percent declines in circulation by six-month period
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Source: Deutsche Bank Securities

Over all, newspaper circulation fell 4.6 % daily and 4.8% Sunday for the six-month period ended September 30, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That was even worse than the 2.6% declines daily and 4.6% Sunday reported for the period a year earlier.1 That still left daily circulation at 48,408,000 Sunday at 48,786,000.2

The news about newspapers’ online audiences was mixed but more positive than not.  One measure, unique visitors — or the number of different people who visited newspaper websites each month — was up 15.8% to 65 million in the third quarter of 2008 over a year earlier, according to measurements by Nielsen Online.

Page views—the number of different pages within each website viewed each month—were up 25.2 %.3

Total audience, or the number of people who read the paper either online or in print (once those who read it in both places were accounted for), also appeared to be growing. A study by the circulation bureau with Scarborough Research for the six-month period ended September 30, attempted to measure the combined reach of 130 participating newspaper websites.  On average, the unduplicated Web audience added 8.4 % to the print readership in their home markets.4

An independent check on these industry measures came in the every-other year survey of news consumption habits by the Pew Center for the People & the Press.  The study, released in August, found that those who said they had read a newspaper yesterday was 34%, compared to 40% two years earlier, while the number who said they read news online yesterday jumped to 29% from 23%.5

For all that, however, the time people spent on each site fell at many papers, suggesting much of that traffic comes from searches with users lingering only briefly rather than reading the news as they would in a print paper.

The print circulation slide from 2001 to 2008 totals roughly 13.5 % daily and 17.3% Sunday.6

The decline in print circulation, while bad, is not as catastrophic as some might think at first glance. First, because their demographics are so strong and print ads are considered effective, newspapers still do not have to tie their ad rates in line with circulation numbers the way some other media do.

Some of the print circulation losses have also been intentional and strategic.  Especially in a year when cost-control was all-consuming, large metros and even smaller papers deliberately discontinued circulation to the more remote sections of their home area.  Those papers are particularly expensive to deliver (in a year when gas prices went for a time to more that $4 –a gallon).  Distant readers are also less valuable to hometown retail advertisers, and it adds to editorial costs to cover those faraway towns.

Another factor fueling the circulation declines, during a difficult year for revenues, is that seeking or even maintaining circulation is expensive. Most newspapers sell subscriptions by phone. The already expensive practice has become more costly since the federal do-not-call registry eliminated millions of homes that could be called And the yield is not very good. Most trial subscribers do not take a full-term, full-cost subscription, setting off new rounds of startup sales and a cycle of churn.  Newspaper executives are now saying that they are better off with a lower but stable number of core subscribers.

As is typical, the average numbers were made up of widely varying results among papers.  Some highlights.7

As through most of this decade, national papers did better than the norm.  USA Today and the Wall Street Journal stayed even for the six months ending in September compared to a year ago.  The New York Times circulation was down 3.4% daily and 4.1% Sunday, but with aggressive price increases, it was a rare paper that showed a gain in circulation revenues.

●Big city metros continued to fare worst of all. Only 2 other of the top 50 papers in circulation (aside from the three nationals) had increases in daily circulation – the Cincinnati Enquirer (up 0.5%, benefiting from the closing of the Cincinnati Post) and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ( up 0.4 %).

Six of the largest 50 had double-digit losses year-to-year — the Houston Chronicle (down 10.6%), the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. (down 10.6%), the Philadelphia Inquirer (down 10.7%), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (down 13.4%), the Orange County (Calif.) Register (down 14.4%) and the Miami Herald (down 12.1%). The Houston, Philadelphia and Newark papers had double-digit losses on Sunday as well.

●All told, excluding the three national papers, Deutsche Bank analyst David Clark calculated that the top 50 newspapers (which account for about a third of all circulation) were down 6.3% daily and 5.9% Sunday.

The contribution of newspaper websites to expanding audience reach varied as well.  The San Francisco Chronicle was tops, adding roughly 24% to its print audience when monthly unique visitors to its web site, SF Gate, were included.  Other large papers that did best in adding audience were the Boston Globe, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.8

Several years ago, there was vague talk that the industry would work through shedding less-desirable subscribers and that print circulation numbers might stabilize if not turn back up.  That now appears less likely as the gradual shift of audience to the Internet continues and financial pressures rule out aggressive investment in building print circulation for most metro and mid-sized papers.   So expect circulation totals to decline again in 2009 and 2010.

New Audience Strategies

Raw numbers do not tell the entire audience story.  Changes in strategy are at work that mirror the aspiration of newspaper organizations to transform themselves into diversified publishing ventures on multiple platforms. Besides the basic news audiences in print and online, the companies are looking for additional audiences that will interest local advertisers and build revenues.

For a start, many newspapers have ditched the traditional circulation department in favor of a broader audience development and marketing department.  Some of the traditional functions, including delivery and customer service calls, are prime candidates for outsourcing to save money. What remains crucial for the newspaper is to identify groups of audiences to be served within its market and a suite of products that will deliver those audiences to advertisers.

Most papers have specialty publications, distributed to high-income ZIP codes and driven by advertising for luxury goods.  Health and fitness or other topics with advertising support get the same niche publication treatment.

Besides the main website, papers typically have specialty or micro sites with distinct ad bases and topics that will draw reader participation and comment.  At Gannett’s 85 community newspapers the big three are moms, high school sports and nightlife.

A few papers – the Chicago Tribune, St. Petersburg Times and the Dallas Morning News are notable examples – have free distribution print products targeted at youth audiences or other groups.

All this may seem to have little to do with traditionally defined news, but it gives the newspaper organization’s sales force, some of them now specialists in online options, a briefcase of solutions to sell the prospective advertiser.

One other factor could also affect circulation. United States newspapers are notoriously underpriced – selling a single copy typically for about half the going rate in Europe and Asia.  As a result, circulation generates only about 15% to 20% of the typical newspaper’s revenues here; abroad a 50-50 split between circulation and advertising revenues is common. Even with the recession, many papers are becoming more aggressive about pricing — most McClatchy papers went to 75 cent a copy in the fourth quarter—which can drive circulation down but may strengthen the paper.9

Online, the continuing strategy is to build out websites with even more breaking news, multimedia content and user participation.  Newspapers are reconciled to having many visitors arriving by search or from sites that aggregate news reports from many sources, at the same time hoping to have enough to offer that local users will linger.  The companies seem to be betting that online advertising, disappointing in the last several years, will increase in volume and command higher rates with better targeting.  (See more detailed discussion of this in the Economics section of this chapter).

In 2009, new rules from the Audit Bureau of Circulations will be phased in.  Paid circulation will mean paid by individuals.  Paid distribution by third-party groups or distribution at hotels and conferences now count as separate categories.

That is consistent with the industry’s story that it wants quality circulation and recognizes the other categories are of less worth to advertisers.  However, there is a loophole – paid circulation can be for any amount, allowing a return to deep discounting should a paper choose to go that route.

A final strategy might be called a roll of the dice by drastically scaling back the daily print product.  Most metros are now producing a paper smaller in every dimension than the one they were publishing three years ago – thinner paper, narrower page width, less space for news and a smaller staff covering a shrinking geographic area and range of topics.

We have expressed skepticism about a less-is-more editorial report in previous editions of State of the Media.  Logic and empirical research by Phil Meyer in his 2004 book, “The Vanishing Newspaper,” suggests that a bare bones newspaper will have difficulty holding marginally committed readers.10

The cutters are probably right in suggesting that hurried readers will accept a tightened report – to an extent.  But the deep cuts of 2008 raised concerns among observers beyond the usual academics and media critics. Goldman Sachs analyst Peter Appert asked A.H. Belo CEO Robert Decherd during an earnings conference call in July, “How do you maintain editorial relevance and quality as you are doing such dramatic cuts in staff?”  Decherd replied that the right mix of materials would keep “our products more than relevant, actually essential, to the local news and information needs of our communities.”11

In addition to a diminished daily product potentially alienating readers, the strategies at some papers to reduce print delivery to a few days a week (Detroit is a prime example) also will test whether cutting some of the daily print cycle brings big advertising losses.

Throughout the industry, 2009 circulation results will bring a fresh test of a question – are newspapers still substantive enough to hold readers?  Or is their skimpiness going to drive deeper audience losses?

Number of U.S. Daily Newspapers

Over all, the total number of daily newspapers continued to decline for the fourth straight year. In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, daily newspapers were down to 1,422 in that year from 1,437 in 2006.11 Of the total number of daily newspapers, evening papers continued to decline, while those in the morning continued a trend of growth. In 2007, the number of evening papers declined by 49. This compares with a drop of 31 evening papers from 2005 to 2006.12

Morning newspapers, on the other hand grew by 34 in 2007, continuing a trend of growth after adding 16 from 2005 to 2006.13

Number of U.S. Daily Newspapers
Weekday and Sunday editions, yearly increments, 1990-2007
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Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

Readership Demographics

As has been the case for several years, newspaper readership continued to steadily decline in 2008. Across all demographic groups PEJ looks at – age, ethnicity, education and income – fewer people across the board are picking up daily and Sunday newspapers.

Among readers of all ages, readership declined between 2007 and 2008. Young people in the age groups of 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 continue to have the lowest readership levels of daily newspapers. Among readers 18 to 24 years of age, 31% say they read a newspaper yesterday, according to data from Scarborough Research. This represents a drop of two percentage points from the prior year. Those in the 25-to-34 age group do not demonstrate much better numbers. Readership of daily newspapers was down to 32%, also down two percentage points from 2007.14

Those aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 also showed declines in readership in 2008. Readership of daily newspapers was down to 41% and 51%, respectively, among the age groups.15

And even the most faithful readers of newspapers, older people, or those ages 55 – to 64 and 65 and above have shown sharp drops in readership since 2000. In 2008, readership was down to 57% among 55-to-64-year-olds, a drop of nine percentage points since 2000. Those 65 and older showed an even greater drop. Although 64% say they picked up a newspaper yesterday, this number has declined from 72% in 2000, an eight percentage point difference.16

Daily Newspaper Readership by Age Group
Percentage nationally who read any daily newspaper yesterday, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Age Group
Percentage nationally who read latest Sunday edition, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data

According to demographic data of newspaper readership by ethnicity, the group most  likely to read newspapers—whites – declined to 47% from 49% the year before. African Americans and Asians, however, held their readership steady between the two years, at 42% and 41%, respectively. For African Americans, this broke a slow but steady decline in readership that began in 2002. Asians readership, which had been seeing slow but steady readership decreases, has held readership steady for the past three years, since 2006. And after a slight increase in readership in 2007, Hispanics – the group least likely to read a newspaper – showed a decline in readership in 2008, down to 29% from 31% in 2007.17

Daily Newspaper Readership by Race/Ethnicity
Percentage nationally who read any daily newspaper yesterday, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Race/Ethnicity
Percentage nationally who read latest Sunday edition, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data

Among readers of varying levels of education, newspaper readership also declined across the board between 2007 and 2008. One of the two groups most likely to read newspapers – those with some post-graduate education – showed a drop of three percentage points in 2008, to 56%, the largest drop among groups of any level of education. Those with post-graduate degrees also declined, down to 60% from 62% the year prior. College graduates showed the least decline, dropping only one percentage point to 52% in 2008. Readers with some high school and some college both dropped off two percentage points, to 44 and 48% respectively, since 2007.18

Daily Newspaper Readership by Education
Percentage nationally who read any daily newspaper yesterday, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data

Sunday Newspaper Readership by Education
Percentage nationally who read atest Sunday edition, 1999-2008
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Source: Scarborough Research survey data


1. Jennifer Saba, “FAS-FAX:  Most Major Newspapers Continue Circulation Declines,” Editor and Publisher, October 27, 2008

2. Newspaper Association of America, “Trends and Numbers” at Most recent figures are as of the end of 2007, adjusted for further losses in 2008

3. “Newspaper Web Site Audience Increases 15.8 % in Third Quarter to 68.3 million,” Newspaper Association of America, October 23, 2008

4.David T. Clark, “Weak Circulation Trends Across Industry,” Deutsche Bank Securities,” analyst’s report, October 27, 2008

5. Pew Center for the People and the Press, “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” August 19, 2008

6. Newspaper Association of America, “Trends and Numbers” at Most recent figures are as of the end of 2007, adjusted for further losses in 2008

7. David T. Clark, “Weak Circulation Trends Across Industry,” Deutsche Bank Securities,” analyst’s report, October 27, 2008

8. David T. Clark, “Weak Circulation Trends Across Industry,” Deutsche Bank Securities,” analyst’s report, October 27, 2008

9. Rick Edmonds, “What Should a Newspaper Cost?” Poynter Online, May 2, 2008

10. Philip Meyer, The Vanishing Newspaper, University of Missouri Press, 2004

11. A.H. Belo Corporation Q2 2008 Earnings Call, Seeking Alpha, July 28, 2008

12. 2008 Editor & Publisher International Yearbook Data, “Circulation of U.S. Daily Newspapers by Circulation Groups, Number of Daily Newspapers.”

13. 2008 Editor & Publisher International Yearbook Data

14.2008 Editor & Publisher International Yearbook Data

15. Scarborough Research Center , survey data spring 2008

16. Scarborough Research Center , survey data spring 2008

17.Scarborough Research Center , survey data spring 2008

18. Scarborough Research Center , survey data spring 2008

19. Scarborough Research Center , survey data spring 2008