Less of a Loss: The Recent Circulation Numbers Show a Decline-But Not Much of One. (the Newspaper Business)

By Morton, John | American Journalism Review, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Less of a Loss: The Recent Circulation Numbers Show a Decline-But Not Much of One. (the Newspaper Business)


Morton, John, American Journalism Review


In a way the newspaper industry's circulation can be likened to its capital account--the asset from which all else flows. Circulation drives advertising revenue, profit, influence and myriad other factors that make up the newspaper business as we know it.

For more than a dozen years the industry's capital account has been diminishing, and in the long run this is as harmful to newspapers as it would be for any other kind of business. One can take some faint hope from the preliminary average circulation numbers for the six months ending March 31, as compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Total daily and Sunday circulation for newspapers (those reporting to ABC) in the most recent six-month period declined just 0.1 percent from the same period last year--still a decline but a significantly smaller one than registered in the past. In the six-month period ending last September 30, for example, weekday circulation was down 0.3 percent and Sunday had slipped 0.4 percent, and the declines in the period before that were about twice as much.

In effect, circulation seems to be getting worse at a slower rate. Now, as is often the case, there were special factors at work during the last reporting period, notably a heightened interest in news about the war in Iraq. With past major news events, for example the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the first gulf war, newspaper circulation soared for a time, then settled back to earlier patterns.

But it is not clear that circulation spiked during the Iraq war, at least based on anecdotal evidence. If true, this may reflect the technologically improved coverage by television, which brought the immediacy of the war directly into living rooms.

As in earlier circulation-audit periods, daily newspapers with circulations of 500,000 or more tended to fare best, rising 0.1 percent, and those under 25,000 (more than half the total newspapers reporting) fared worst, declining 0.4 percent. I have opined before that a reason for this is that large dailies tend to offer higher quality and fuller journalism than do smaller ones.

Still, some large newspapers were affected by other factors. The New York Times, for example, in past reporting periods has shown fairly steady circulation increases. But in the most recent period, the Times dropped 5.3 percent in weekday circulation, to 1,130,740, probably a result of a price increase in New York City to $1 from 75 cents last December and difficult comparisons with the previous year, when circulation soared because of 9/11 coverage. …

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