Despite Circulation Numbers, Neither the Sky Nor the Republic is Falling

It has been all of about 15 minutes since we last heard someone bemoan the ‘death of newspapers’ or decide to hold yet another conference blaming the Internet for their downfall, so thanks to the New York Times (Website) for adding more fuel to the fire with a report that circulation has fallen at the top 25 newspapers, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal. Andrew Sullivan captures the essence of the moment nicely:

The Boston Globe’s circulation is down 18 percent in one year; the San Francisco Chronicle’s is down 26 percent. The WSJ is actually stable. But these slides and the readerships they now represent are hard to ignore. They are not signs of an industry as we have known it in trouble. They are signs of it ending.

But these articles ignore that last year, according to Nielson, unique visitors to the top 10 newspaper Web site increased 16%, growing 34.6 million unique visitors in December 2007 to 40.1 million in December 2008. I know, I know, advertisers don’t pay nearly as much for online ads as they do for print ads, but that says more about advertisers than it does about the demand for newspaper content.

And there is another misleading finding about the rankings, which for the first time in a decade put the Wall Street Journal at the top. The Wall Street Journal took that spot, as I understand it, because it is one of the few to charge for online content, and is allowed to include its online subscribers in the circulation totals. When you combine the online NY Times audience (the leader, with 18.2 million unique visitors in December 2008) with its current print circulation of 927,851 on weekdays and 1.4 million on Sundays, they blow away the Journal in total readers (as does USA Today). (Nothing against the Journal, a fine publication, they deserve a pat on the back for getting (rich) people to pay for online content). Further, according to the Newspaper Association of America, peak weekly and Sunday subscriptions for all newspapers appeared to have peaked at around 60-62 million in the 1980s. Yet Nielson found that in August of 2009 there was a unique audience of over 75 million for newspaper Websites, more readers than hard copy newspapers have ever attracted. So why isn’t that the headline? Clearly, there is still great, and apparently growing, demand for quality journalism, if not necessarily newsprint. The advertisers will catch up with the younger demographic reading papers online and the newspaper industry will find new models, but probably not as fast as the old ones will be destroyed.

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3 Responses to “Despite Circulation Numbers, Neither the Sky Nor the Republic is Falling”

  1. Posts about Andrew Sullivan as of October 27, 2009 » The Daily Parr Says:

    […] about Andrew Sullivan as of October 27, 2009 Dispite Circulation Numbers, Neither the Sky Nor the Republic is Falling – blogs.law.harvard.edu 10/26/2009 It has been all of about 15 minutes since we last heard […]

  2. Clay Shirky Says:

    “…that says more about advertisers than it does about the demand for newspaper content.”

    No one I know of writing about the difficulties of newspapers suggests that the problem is a lack of demand, so this observation feels true but irrelevant. Newspapers, in their current form, cannot survive a transition to the web, even if advertisers willingness to pay quintuples, and not only is that scenario unlikely, the current trend is in the other direction.

    You ask why the large online audience isn’t the headline — it isn’t the headline because the fate of newspapers as going concerns is not tied to the size of the online audience. If business were a popularity contest, all would be well with newspapers, but it isn’t, so it isn’t.

  3. Bruce Says:

    Thanks very much for your comment, Clay. I agree, by and large, with your writing on this topic. However, I guess I am far more optimistic than you about the potential of multiple new revenue streams to sustain a different, but still very important newspaper industry (as someone who pays for the paper version of both the Times and the Globe, I don’t want to lose the hard copy versions, but I see opportunities to sustain them because of, not despite, the Web.) That said, I’m more concerned about quality journalism than the format it comes in. While I understand that you are right, advertisers are not willing to pay as much for online ads now as they are for print ads, I have a hard time understanding how advertising has ever been about anything BUT attracting a lot of eyeballs to an ad (a popularity contest as you put it), and expect that the price of an online ad will increase in the future at the top news sites. I also wonder if the fact that all the data that advertisers can collect on click throughs, etc. doesn’t hurt newspapers. There is no ‘click through’ for a paper advertisement, and yet advertisers for years have been happy to infer that people saw an add in the NY Times without much hard evidence that that particular ad led to an increase in sales. For those that want to sell things to the coveted young, well-educated (and in the future wealthier) demographic group, they are going to be reached through sites like he NY Times.

    As Steve Coll has suggested, there are also a number of mixed non-profit business models for newspapers that could work, but I think people like Charlie Sennott have also started to show that online for-profit models can also give us quality international news, for those that are married to the idea that newspapers have to generate a profit (I for one, am not).