April 28, 2009

Newspaper Circs: Another Serious Drop; NYT’s Small Decline a Short-Term Obama Strategy Vindication

NYThistoryObama0109From Editor & Publisher yesterday (bold is mine):

The Audit Bureau of Circulations released this morning the spring figures for the six months ending March 31, 2009, showing that the largest metros continue to shed daily and Sunday circulation — now at a record rate.

According to ABC, for 395 newspapers reporting this spring, daily circulation fell 7% to 34,439,713 copies, compared with the same March period in 2008. On Sunday, for 557 newspapers, circulation was down 5.3% to 42,082,707. These averages do not include 84 newspapers with circulations below 50,000 due to a change in publishing frequency.

Here is a chart showing the specifics for the top 25, including percentage losses for the past four years and during the past year (current year source: Editor & Publisher):


Until this year, there were three notable exceptions to the downward trend: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. I stated during the past few years, and still believe it to be the case, that these three publications were doing better than their counterparts because they tended to play the news relatively straight — and in the Journal’s case, as its late opinion page editor Robert Bartley used to say, it is still the only newspaper people buy specifically to read the editorials.

Clearly, the New York Post has succumbed to print news’s general malaise in the past year. Still, in past four years, its 13.2% decline makes its performance the seventh-best among the top 25 papers, and its decline is less than half of five of them (Dallas Morning News, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

It’s probably safe to say that current economic conditions have moved many print readers to get their news online at a faster rate than in previous years. In fact, it may be fair to say that a print newspaper, like the morning cappuccino, has officially turned the corner and became a tough-times luxury instead of a routine indulgence. In New York, especially given that the Daily News also declined steeply, it’s likely that Gotham’s job losses and the state’s recent round of tax increases on seemingly anything and everything have accelerated the online conversion even further.

That leaves the New York Times, which, for all its troubles, might end up being the last newspaper standing — especially if it puts its awfully-performing Boston Globe property to sleep.

The Times’s decline in the past year was relatively small because it’s positioned as a national newspaper; it’s actually New York’s third newspaper in circulation inside the city. Its shameless shilling for President Barack Obama, up to and including its ads as seen above, has thus far worked relatively well — or less poorly than almost everyone else — as a business strategy. It remains to be seen if selling out what little remained of its journalistic integrity makes the Old Gray Lady viable in the long run.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

UPDATE, April 29: Although I suspect that Burrelle’s will publish a separate Top 100 list shortly, here is the detailed 3/31/09 data, before it disappears behind E&P’s subscription wall, just in case –

USA TODAY — 2,113,725 – (-7.46%)
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL — 2,082,189 — 0.61%
THE NEW YORK TIMES — 1,039,031 — (-3.55%)
LOS ANGELES TIMES — 723,181 — (-6.55%)
THE WASHINGTON POST — 665,383 — (-1.16%)

DAILY NEWS (NEW YORK) — 602,857 — (-14.26%)
NEW YORK POST — 558,140 — (-20.55%)
CHICAGO TRIBUNE — 501,202 — (-7.47%)
HOUSTON CHRONICLE — 425,138 — (-13.96%)
THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC — 389,701 — (-5.72%)

THE DENVER POST (02/28/2009 to 03/31/2009) — 371,728 — N/A
NEWSDAY — 368,194 — (-3.01%)
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS — 331,907 — (-9.88%)
STAR-TRIBUNE, MINNEAPOLIS — 320,076 — (-0.71%)
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES — 312,141 — (-0.04%)

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE — 312,118 — (-15.72%)
THE BOSTON GLOBE — 302,638 — (-13.68%)
THE PLAIN DEALER, CLEVELAND — 291,630 — (-11.70%)
DETROIT FREE PRESS — 290,730 — (-5.90%)
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER — 288,298 — (-13.72%)

THE STAR-LEDGER, NEWARK, N.J. — 287,082 — (-16.82%)
ST. PETERSBURG (FLA.) TIMES — 283,093 — (-10.42%)
THE OREGONIAN, PORTLAND — 268,512 — (-11.76%)
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE — 261,253 — (-9.53%)



  1. I follow the September numbers for circulation more closely, mainly because these are what the New York Times includes in its 10-K SEC filings, which I presume they’re more cautious in reporting thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley. Going by those figures, the New York Times has averaged a 2.9% rate of decline for the past three years for its circulation, primarily in its home market (it is primarily a national newspaper now, especially its Sunday edition.) With that being the case, the -3.6% change in circulation you note is on the high end of its average rate of decline in recent years.

    The data also indicates that the Times’ nationalization strategy has pretty much hit its limits – while the percentage of its national vs local circulation is growing, the actual numbers of its national circulation suggest that they topped out back in 2005. They might be becoming purely a national newspaper, but they’re not growing into one anymore.

    Comment by Ironman — April 28, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  2. #1, I don’t see them growing either. They don’t (necessarily) have to. Being the last one standing is (I think) possible, if they shed their bigtime money-losers like the Globe.

    But even then, at some point to make it work I believe they’re going to have to take the paper private — If they can take the share price goes down far enough and Pinch and family enough money stashed elsewhere. Or I suppose they could file for bankruptcy and emerge private and family-owned. They might be watching to see how the ones that have filed already work out before taking the plunge themselves.

    Comment by TBlumer — April 29, 2009 @ 6:35 am

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