Not that long ago, printed newspapers dominated the news landscape and seemed to have a promising future.
In 1940, daily circulation of print newspapers in the U.S. was 41.1 million, according to the Pew Research Center. It was a rare home that didn’t start the day with a newspaper at the breakfast table. At my home in Wallingford, CT, we had two papers delivered daily in the 1940s. In the morning, we got the Meriden Record; In the afternoon we got the New Haven Register. Established about 1812, the Register was one of the oldest continuously published newspapers in the United States.
In the mid-1980’s, weekday print newspaper circulation in the U.S. reached a peak of 63.3 million. Americans avidly followed stories about events such as the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the introduction of Apple’s original Macintosh personal computer (accompanied by a still heralded Orwellian-themed “1984” TV ad), the agreement between China and the United Kingdom to transfer power in Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997 and Villanova’s stirring 66-64 upset victory over Georgetown in the NCAA championship.
Onward and upward, thought media leaders.
Print newspapers hung in there until the early 2000s. Then the bottom began to fall out. By 2012, daily print circulation was down to 43.4 million. By 2020, Pew Research estimated that print circulation had fallen to just under 24.3 million. What happened? The internet and age.
Print newspaper readers have always tended to be older, more affluent, and more educated. Publishers and advertisers used to like that. The problem is that as those older readers have aged and died, they have not been backfilled by subsequent generations. Instead, younger readers have been gravitating to digital communications channels.
And the shift has accelerated across print platforms where readers have been aging fast.
In a 2012 Pew Research Survey, just 23% of respondents said they read a printed newspaper the previous day. The highest readership, 48% was among those 65 and older. The lowest was those 18-24, at 6%, and 25-29, at 10%.
The percentages saying they read a printed newspaper yesterday have continued to steadily decline.
A newer May 2021 survey revealed that most consumers never use newspapers as a source of news, and only 25 percent of adults aged 65 or above (those who engage with newspapers the most) reported reading newspapers every day. Meanwhile, even older folks are warming up to online news. Those over 50 are also warming up to the web. In 2016, 32% of the news readers in the 50+ age group expressed a preference for the web. This increased to 43% in a 2019 survey. Newspapers have become even less popular as a news source than radio, and are also among the least used daily news sources among adults aged 18 – 24.
If this young cohort keeps its print avoidance as it ages, print newspapers will eventually lose almost their entire audience.
The biggest threat is probably to local papers with smaller circulation. Papers with a significant number of print subscribers, such as the still profitable Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, are in a better position.
About five years ago, the Journal’s Editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, was asked by a writer for the Nieman Lab whether he saw a day when there would be no print edition at all.
“I don’t really foresee the day when there’s no print edition,” Baker said. ” I mean, who knows — we live in a rapidly changing world. Who can really say anything with conviction about what will be 10, 15, 20 years hence? But as things stand, we have a million print subscribers who really value the print edition of the paper. They really want it. They’re prepared to pay a significant amount of money for what they pay for a print newspaper. There continues to be strong demand for the print product, and we will continue to need to meet that demand. I don’t foresee any other changes in the foreseeable future.”
Notwithstanding this rosy prediction, in Sept. 2017 the paper announced it would stop publishing its European and Asian editions. Falling overseas sales and plunging print advertising revenue in recent years drove the decision, according to the Journal. In Oct. 2020, it took another step away from print, cutting print editions of its fashion and luxury lifestyle insert WSJ. Magazine from a dozen to eight.
Those are the drip drip signs of changing attitudes at the Journal about the viability of print.
Meanwhile, most of the paper’s subscription growth is on the digital side. In 2017, of the paper’s 2.1 million subscribers, 1.08 million were digital. Daily print readership now stands at about 734 thousand copies, while digital subscribers total about 2.7 million.
It’s a similar story at The New York Times. In 2017, the paper had 540,000 daily print and 2.2 million digital subscribers. Daily print readership now stands at about 795,000 copies, while digital subscribers total about 5.7 million.
A friend of mine told me he used to subscribe to the daily print version of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, even after he moved away from Columbus, until he realized he was spending $1000 a year for the subscription. A 12-month digital subscription today is just $119.88.
In all three cases, it costs a lot less to be a digital subscriber, so you have to really love print to go that way. Fewer and fewer people do.
An added note: Covid-19 isn’t helping either. Covid-19’s devastation has hit the elderly the hardest. Of the more then 800,000 Americans who have died from Covid-19, 75% have been 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the newspaper audience.