Newspapers' Readership Drop Isn't All Bad News

Newspaper circulation is down 10.6% in America, but it's not the death of the industry

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The Audit Bureau of Circulations reports that newspaper circulation in America has dropped 10.6% from last year, dragging newspaper audiences to their lowest point since World War II. On cue, bloggers are once again heralding the death of newspapers. (This familiar cry gains potency when you see how far circulation has fallen over twenty years.) But there's reason to believe that sinking readership may be less a death knell than part of the industry's evolving business strategy. Newspapers may be better off printing fewer copies for fewer, wealthier customers in the long run. Why?

  • Cutting Wasteful Over-Production  Editor and Publisher's Jennifer Saba surveys the industry's long-held strategy, finally abandoned, of flooding the market with extra newspapers. "Publishers have been purposely pulling back on certain types of circulation, including hotel, employee and third-party sponsored copies. No longer are they distributing newspapers to the outer reaches of the core market. The cost of delivery and the cost of materials have forced publishers to scale back."
  • Quality Over Quantity  MediaMemo columnist Peter Kafka argues that newspapers pursue a smaller readership. Printing newspapers, after all, is expensive and producing too many copies is wasteful. "Tough times have forced many papers to rethink their circulation strategies. An obvious conclusion: Much of the money publishers were spending to print and deliver dead trees has gone to waste. New strategy: Print fewer copies, and charge more for the ones you do sell. That's a tactic, not a strategy, but in the near-term it might work."  E&P's Saba agrees. "Circulation is guaranteed to go down as prices go up, but publishers have opted to wring more revenue from readers as advertisers keep their coffers closed."
  • Look to the Internet  Douglas A. McIntyre of 24/7 Wall Street insists a Web-based strategy is the future. "Newspapers are in the midst of a retrenchment that they cannot avoid and part of that retrenchment is cutting back circulation," he writes. "Newspapers can buy time by cutting circulation and people to save costs. An economic recovery may buy the industry even more time. It has been said far too often, but, with the new September 30 circulation figures in hand, it is worth saying again. For the newspaper industry a huge success on the Internet is all that is left. All the other options are gone."
  • As Economy Recovers, So Will Readership  Mother Jones's Kevin Drum explores the short-term effects of the recession. "There are various ways you can look at that 10% drop, and one of them is simply that the recession has condensed several years of decline into a single year. A $500 newspaper subscription is a prime candidate to get sliced out of the family budget when times are tough and news can be found everywhere. So maybe all that's happening is that a cohort of the least dedicated readers are leaving all at once, and when the recession starts to lift newspaper circulations will begin to stabilize a bit. Or at least decline more slowly."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.