Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787 that, “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Apparently that preference is not shared by most Americans today. Their government is growing fast, but the newspaper business seems to be withering away. According to trade publication Editor & Publisher, U.S. newspaper circulation fell 8.7% in the six months ending March 31, compared with the same period a year earlier, extending an erosion of readership that has now been unfolding for two decades.
Newspaper readership in the United States peaked during the late 1980s, and then began a gradual decline that accelerated with the expansion of cable news services and the advent of the internet. The rate of decline became breathtaking during the 2007-2008 recession as readers and advertisers abandoned traditional media outlets by the millions, but publishers had hoped that economic recovery would bring some relief. Financial performance has in fact strengthened marginally in the last couple of quarters at media conglomerates such as Gannett and McClatchy, but not because readers have returned to their papers. Circulation continues to decline at a rapid pace. Here are the latest circulation numbers from some of the biggest papers, followed by the percentage loss or gain in readership since last year.
Wall Street Journal — 2,092,523 (+1%)
USA Today — 1,826,622 (-14%)
New York Times — 951,063 (-8%)
Los Angeles Times — 616,606 (-15%)
Washington Post — 578,482 (-13%)
New York Daily News — 535,059 (-11%)
New York Post — 525,004 (-6%)
Chicago Tribune — 452,145 (-10%)
Houston Chronicle — 366,578 (-14%)
Arizona Republic — 351,207 (-10%)
Minneapolis Star Tribune — 295,438 (-8%)
Dallas Morning News — 260,659 (-21%)
San Francisco Chronicle — 241,330 (-23%)
Newark Star Ledger — 236,017 (-18%)
Only one newspaper among the top 25 — the Wall Street Journal — managed to eke out a gain in readership, and that was a mere 0.5%. All the others lost readers, and they generally lost readers at a faster pace than the nation’s hundreds of smaller dailies. It appears that in places where consumers have lots of alternatives for getting the news, the newspaper habit is dying fast. It is a safe bet that some papers still in the top 25, like the San Francisco Chronicle, will not exist at all in a few years.
It is widely assumed that newspapers are losing popularity because consumers are turning to various electronic media — cable, the internet, etc. — for their news. However, the case can be made that what consumers are really doing is abandoning traditional news for other kinds of content. The nightly newscasts on the big broadcast networks have been losing an average of a million viewers every year for three straight decades, and it is a rare day when the news programming of all cable outlets combined reaches a tenth of the public. It’s true that many people have turned to the internet for news — including the web-sites of big newspapers — but surveys show they only spend an average of six minutes at internet news sites compared with 15 minutes viewing television news and longer reading a newspaper.
So while there is no doubt the news business is fragmenting, the more interesting trend that may be unfolding is the disappearance of news in general, at least in the traditional sense. If you doubt that is happening, ask yourself when was the last time you watched a nightly news broadcast on one of the networks from beginning to end. When I was a kid, everyone did. Now, we’re all too busy doing something else, and it usually doesn’t involve “the news.”
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