Vanishing readers and journalists

  • Half of newspaper readers and journalists have vanished over the past 15 years. Total circulation decreased by 55 million between 2004 and 2019. During the same period, newspapers lost 36,000 journalists.
  • The loss of both was driven by the collapse of the for-profit business model that sustained newspapers in the 20th century.
  • In response, publishers either closed unprofitable newspapers or relied on cost-cutting measures to retain profitability, eliminating print circulation, especially in outlying areas, and laying off journalists who cover the news. Metro and regional daily papers have been disproportionately responsible for the decline in journalists.

While a fourth of the country's newspapers have vanished since 2004, many of the 6,700 survivors have become "ghost newspapers" – mere shells of their former selves, with greatly diminished newsrooms and readership. Strategic decisions to close small weeklies and dailies, discontinue distribution of large dailies to outlying regions of the state, and lay off reporters contributed to the loss of almost half of print newspaper readers and journalists.

Between 2004 and 2019, total weekday circulation – including both dailies and weeklies – declined 45 percent, from more than 122 million to 68 million. Daily papers lost 22 million print readers. Only 39 dailies had a circulation of more than 100,000 in 2019, compared with 104 in 2004. Most of the drop in daily circulation resulted from decisions by owners of dailies to pare back distribution of the print paper, especially in outlying areas. The dramatic circulation drop occurred despite new rules adopted by the industry after 2004 that allowed newspapers to count print and online readership that had previously been excluded.46 While online readership for most daily newspapers exceeds print readership, newspapers have struggled with getting readers to pay even a small amount for online access, a prerequisite for including those digital numbers in the industry-accepted audit of circulation conducted by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM).

Circulation for weeklies declined from 72 million in 2014 to 40 million in 2019, and the decline was primarily the result of the closure of more than 2,000 weeklies or nondaily papers. The shuttered papers included large weeklies, such as The Gazette in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., which had a circulation of 450,000 when it was closed, as well as small papers, such as the Carthage Press in Missouri with 1,200 circulation. The average circulation of the country's surviving 5,500 weeklies and nondailies is 8,000. However, that probably overstates the actual paid subscription level of most weeklies and small dailies. Only 13 percent of papers in the UNC database subscribe to AAM audits. Many smaller newspapers – dailies, as well as weeklies – either self-report their circulation to sources such as Editor and Publisher, or don't share any statistics. The circulation figures for many of the nondailies and weeklies have been unchanged for over a decade. Most likely, many weeklies have supplemented declines in paid subscribers with free distribution in an effort to hold their circulation at a certain level.

At the same time newspapers were shedding readers, they were also shedding journalists. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of reporters and editors employed by newspapers dropped from 71,000 to 35,000.47 The large regional dailies have shed the most journalists – an estimated 24,000 – or two thirds of the total. Many large dailies, which often had several hundred journalists on staff in the late 1990s, today have only a few dozen.

The loss of both journalists and circulation speaks to the declining influence of state and regional newspapers, as well as the small community papers. Historically, journalists provided readers with transparency and insights into the decisions made by elected officials, and, in a mutually beneficial exchange, government officials relied on newspapers to get the word out to readers when there were important issues on the agenda.48 With fewer journalists, there are fewer stories. And with fewer readers, the local newspaper ceases to be a community megaphone. A less-informed public is less likely to vote. Recent research has found that when a newspaper pulls back on circulation and coverage in a community, voter participation – especially in off-cycle elections – goes down.49

The dramatic loss of readers and journalists also raises questions about the long-term financial viability of print newspapers in the digital era. The business model that sustained print regional and community newspapers in the 20th century relied on advertisers to provide 80 to 90 percent of the revenue. Local newspapers essentially purchased readers by offering subscriptions that covered only a fraction of the cost of gathering and producing the news, then turned around and sold their audiences at a premium to local advertisers, who wanted to reach people who lived in a certain geographic area. In the latter half of the 20th century, the sole surviving newspaper in many markets was often a de facto monopoly, able to set rates for both print advertisers and readers. As a result, papers in smaller markets often operated at 20 to 40 percent profit margins.50

But, by 2011, reader habits had shifted, with more people getting their news online than from a newspaper. Advertisers followed readers, causing the collapse of the print business model. Complicating matters, newspapers have had a very difficult time transitioning to digital business models since Facebook and Google receive a majority of all digital revenue in even the smallest markets.51

As advertising revenue and profit margins declined rapidly, the metro dailies tended to play a game of attrition, by reducing distribution of the print paper and laying off dozens, even hundreds, of their journalists. In contrast, the small dailies and weeklies, about a third of which are locally owned and operated, had much less ability to cut back since they had many fewer journalists – an average of fewer than five – and much smaller distribution footprints. When revenue dropped, they either accepted diminished profit margins or closed their business if they could not find a buyer. Whether daily or weekly, print advertising and circulation revenue still accounts for between half and three-quarters of most newspapers' total revenue. Going forward, however, the path to survival will most likely look very different for state and metro dailies versus smaller weeklies and nondailies.

Where have all the readers gone?

By the end of 2010, the number of people getting their news online surpassed those reading the local newspaper.52 By the end of 2018, more people said they got their news from social media than print newspapers.53 Did readers abandon print newspapers? Or did newspapers abandon their print readers?

Certainly, consumer preference played a key role. Getting news online has many advantages. The internet is always on, and, thanks to the technology that powers Google and Facebook, readers can quickly access news from multiple sources with just a few keystrokes. As if that wasn't enough incentive, most newspapers followed the lead of The New York Times, which did not charge for online access until 2011. So as high-speed internet became more prevalent, newspaper readers got used to getting their local news online for free – or next to nothing – on their mobile devices as well as their computers.

Corporate business decisions also played a role in accelerating the decline of print readership. As print advertising revenue began dropping rapidly, publishers and owners of the large metro and regional papers scrambled to simultaneously cut circulation costs while raising revenue. They pulled back on expensive distribution in outlying regions of the state and raised print subscription rates to compensate for advertising declines. Between 2004 to 2019, the yearly rate for a print subscription to many regional dailies tripled – from $150 to as much as $600. The actions of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the largest paper in Georgia, and The Wichita Eagle, the largest paper in Kansas, illustrate the significant withdrawal by regional papers from distant counties.

The Constitution was one of the first Southern papers to support the Civil Rights movement. The newsrooms of the Journal-Constitution (which operated separately until 2001) attracted esteemed editors throughout the 20th century, and their journalism has been recognized through the years with numerous awards, including Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service, Editorial Writing and Investigative Reporting. As such, the Journal-Constitution exercised influence that stretched beyond its borders, and it often set the agenda for debate of topics important to the South.

Georgia has 159 counties – more than any other state except Texas, which is much larger geographically. At its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Journal-Constitution papers combined circulated in all 159 counties, plus some adjacent counties in South Carolina and Florida. In 1996, the Journal-Constitution had a paid circulation of 426,000 and was still available in 124 counties. By 2004, the Journal-Constitution's circulation had dipped to 386,000, and was available in 89 of the state's 159 counties. In 2019, it circulated only 111,000 copies in 32 counties.54

The Wichita Eagle has played a similar role in identifying issues that were uniquely important to that state. Additionally, the paper's editor gained national attention in the 1990s for pioneering a new form of journalism, variously known as public or civic journalism. Journalists for the paper not only reported the facts, but also used polling and other means to engage readers and residents in identifying important issues that the paper then covered extensively. In 1992, the Eagle had a paid circulation of 120,000 and was available in more than 70 of 110 counties in Kansas. By 2004, the paper still had a circulation of 90,000, but was distributed in only 24 counties. By 2019, print circulation had decreased to 41,000, and the Eagle was distributed in only 10 counties adjacent to the Wichita metro area. The paper was printed in Kansas City, Missouri, (200 miles away) in early evening, then shipped back to Wichita for distribution. The Eagle, still the largest paper in Kansas, had effectively pulled back coverage to its home market.55

As print circulations have declined, there's been an increased interest in attracting more digital subscriptions. However, newspapers are struggling to get online subscribers to pay the approximate amount for online access that they do for print subscriptions. Even the nation's largest papers, including The New York Times, charge online subscribers "introductory rates" that amount to only a fraction of what they charge for the print edition.56

Many metro newspapers that once had hundreds of thousands of print subscribers have been able to entice only a few thousand subscribers to pay for their online editions, at only 23 percent of the price charged print subscribers.57 Also, research has shown that while charging for online access may boost revenue and profit in the first and second years, that uptick levels off in the third year, unless publishers think of creative ways to reach nonsubscribers, such as free e-newsletters.58

Although many small dailies and weeklies now also charge for online subscriptions, they have even less opportunity to increase the price for their print and online subscriptions than the regional papers. This is especially true for small papers located in poorer communities. As a result, many still charge approximately the same amount for their print editions as they did a decade ago – and are even more constrained in what they can charge for online subscriptions.

While today print and online subscriptions may account for a much higher percentage of overall revenue than in 2004 at both large dailies and small community papers – as much as 50 percent compared with 15 percent in 2004 – the increased circulation share is due to the counterbalancing decrease in print advertising revenue. In other words, publishers are replacing the loss of high-margin print advertising revenue with low-margin subscription revenue, further depressing their already slim profit margins.

Where have all the journalists gone?

Newspapers have historically employed many more reporters than any other news organization and, as a consequence, have produced the majority of the news that feeds our democracy.59 Over the past decade, the number of newspaper journalists fell by half from 71,000 to 35,000.60 Even though the number of journalists employed at digital sites doubled to 16,000 and those at television stations rose slightly to 30,000, there was an overall loss of more than 24,000 journalists in the field, which translates into thousands of stories that did not get covered – at both the local and regional level. Researchers at Duke University found that during a seven-day period in 2016, there was not a single locally produced news story in any news outlet in 20 of the 100 mid-sized communities they surveyed.61

The loss of journalists always results in a loss of journalism, as editors have to make hard decisions about which stories to cover and which to ignore. Both transparency and accountability suffer. Approximately two-thirds of the newspaper journalists who have vanished were employed on the large dailies, and the rest were employed by weeklies or small dailies that closed or merged. When a small weekly or daily closes, there is no reporter to cover routine government meetings or breaking news. When a regional daily newspaper lays off veteran journalists, the major investigative pieces that expose corruption and wrongdoing are not written.

In a May 2020 column, the Poynter Institute's media critic, Tom Jones, asked, "Why did it take so long for the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Brunswick, Georgia, to become one of the biggest stories in the country?" A reporter for the local paper, The Brunswick News, first reported on the shooting of Arbery, a Black man shot by two white men while jogging, in late February 2020 when it occurred. But the story only attracted state and national attention two months later when it reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times. Brunswick, Jones points out, is an hour from Jacksonville, Florida, but covered by neither the regional television station nor the Jacksonville newspaper, and the local newspaper in Brunswick has only four journalists on staff. He goes on to note:

A big reason it took so long for this story to become a major one: where it happened. Brunswick, Georgia, isn't quite in a news desert, but it's close. … The biggest paper in Georgia — and a well-respected news outlet — is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But Atlanta is more than 300 miles away from Brunswick and the AJC does not have a bureau there. The only time the AJC covers that area of the state is for breaking bad weather, such as a hurricane, or climate coverage.62

In the latter half of the 20th century, when circulation and newsroom staffing were at their highest levels, major metro and regional papers employed hundreds in their newsrooms. This included not only investigative reporters, but also beat reporters covering education, health and politics, as well as regional reporters who roamed the state and often identified local problems that were about to become state and national concerns. Ambitious journalism won accolades and prizes for the large state and metro newspapers in the 20th century, but it came with a steep price tag for the newspaper. As print advertising collapsed, the largest dailies began downsizing their reporting staffs. In the mid 1990s – when The News & Observer of Raleigh won the Pulitzer Public Service Award for its investigative series on the environmental issues posed by large-scale industrial hog farming in eastern North Carolina – the paper had more than 250 journalists in its newsroom and fanned out across the state. At the end of 2019, it had only 60 journalists.63

Staffing has been so dramatically pared at many state and metro dailies that the remaining journalists complain they cannot adequately cover their cities, to say nothing of the outlying regions. Multiple rounds of layoffs have decimated some of the largest metro papers. At The Denver Post, layoffs over a five-year period reduced the number of journalists from 180 in 2013 – when the paper received a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a mass shooting at a cinema in Aurora – to fewer than 70 journalists in 2018, responsible for covering a metro area with 2 million residents.64 Layoffs at the New York Daily News in 2018 left only 50 reporters to cover the city's 8 million residents. More recently, in April and May 2020, The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, which had more than 350 employed in its newsroom in the early 2000s, laid off the remaining 30 journalists on the unionized print newspaper, leaving approximately 60 nonunionized journalists employed by responsible for covering northeastern Ohio, an area with more than 4 million people.65

The coverage provided by journalists at the large metro and regional papers has had immense economic benefit for society as a whole.66 Over his career, the senior investigative reporter on The News & Observer's Pulitzer-Prize-winning series on hog farms pursued 150 investigations – on everything from water quality to highway safety – that led to the passage and adoption of dozens of state laws and regulations.67

There is also evidence that journalistic competition between regional dailies and smaller community papers also spurs more thorough coverage of the issues by reporters on the smaller papers, who lack the resources that the larger papers can bring to bear.68 Larry Hobbs, the reporter on The Brunswick News who covered the Arbery shooting, told Poynter's media critic that The Times story made "a huge difference," because "it was thorough, and really well done, as you would expect from The New York Times . … And I'm glad they did it. It put a big spotlight on this story and this story needed that spotlight."69

As the number of journalists has declined in recent years, interest in job security has increased among those still employed. The national organization, NewsGuild/Communication Workers of America, grew by nearly 3,000 new members from 2018 to 2020. Unions were recognized at large metro papers, such as The Los Angeles Times, with 359 members, and The Miami Herald, with 99, and smaller regional ones, such as The Roanoke Times in Virginia, with 51 members, and the South Bend Tribune in Indiana, with 29.70

However, the loss of thousands of veteran journalists has already taken a toll on the quality and quality of journalism that is being produced today at the large regional dailies. When beat and investigative reporters at metro newspapers retire or are laid off, they often are replaced by less-experienced reporters who lack the training and skills to produce major journalistic pieces. In the 1990s, the country's five largest newspapers (in terms of circulation and journalists) received less than a third of the most prestigious investigative journalism awards, with the rest being awarded to journalists on the country's regional dailies. By 2013, the country's largest newspapers were consistently receiving more than half of those annual awards.71

Also, many of the editors at metro papers who oversaw major projects, and mentored less experienced journalists, have been laid off. "This raises questions of when and where the next generation of journalists focused on accountability work will get trained, particularly those who might focus on local institutions," according to Stanford economist James T. Hamilton.72

The Future of Newspapers

With readers and journalists vanishing – along with print advertising – can newspapers survive? In 2004, most industry observers assumed that digital revenue would replace lost print revenue and that most of the successful newspapers of 2020 would be well on the way to digital-only content and delivery. But that transition has proved very difficult, with the two tech giants – Facebook and Google – capturing a majority of digital dollars. This leaves legacy newspapers competing with other media – television, radio, magazines and online startups – for the digital leftovers. Complicating matters, digital pricing of both advertising and subscriptions favors very large organizations, such as the tech giants that reach hundreds of millions. As a result, newspapers are caught between two worlds – continuing to incur most of the costs associated with the print world and reaping very little of the anticipated digital revenue.

National papers, such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have focused on attracting a sizable online audience, willing and able to pay a premium to get the unique news and information they offer, in the hopes they can then attract advertisers willing to pay a premium to reach these affluent and engaged online audiences. In 2019, The New York Times added a million digital-only subscribers and had more than 5.3 million subscribers to all its print and digital products, including the Crossword and Cooking publications. Total subscription revenue of $1 billion was twice the advertising revenue. Even so, slightly more than half of the newspaper's total advertising and subscription revenue still came from the print edition of the paper. Digital advertising revenue in 2019 had actually decreased by more than 6 percent compared with the previous year – not a promising sign.73 That The Times still depends on the print edition for half of its revenue illustrates how difficult it can be for legacy papers to make the digital transformation.

Since most metro and state dailies have already pared distribution to outlying areas and cut newsroom staffing to skeletal levels, their owners have only one other place to seek significant cost savings – converting print subscribers to digital delivery and cutting back on daily publication of a print edition. Even at their peak in the latter part of the 20th century – in terms of revenue and circulation – most daily papers were only profitable three days a week. Those were the three heavy advertising days: Sunday with its display and classified advertising, as well as the slick inserts offering coupons from national retailers and manufacturers; Wednesday or Thursday, with the local grocery advertisements; and Friday, with the weekend advertisements for movies, events and other entertainment. Sunday was especially profitable, accounting for more than half of total advertising revenue. These three days financed the distribution of the paper seven days a week.

Ironically, even though a majority of readers have preferred to get their news online since 2011, the subscribers to print editions have been very reluctant to give up their habit of reading a physical copy. Although many large dailies have focused in recent years on increasing the number of digital subscribers, research for an international newspaper association found that those efforts to date have been largely disappointing, resulting in only a few thousand subscribers to e-editions at most major metros. So publishers of major metros have proceeded gingerly, decreasing print publication and distribution days gradually, one day at a time. In 2019, for example, McClatchy announced it would decrease publication of all its papers from seven days to six.74

Suddenly discontinuing daily publication can backfire, especially for large dailies, with loyal, but aging, readers. In 2013, Advance Publications announced it was taking a number of its daily newspapers, including the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, from seven days to three days.75 That precipitated an uproar from readers and a competitive response from a paper in Baton Rouge, which started publishing and distributing an edition in New Orleans. A year after announcing the cutback, Advance Publications reversed course and began printing a tabloid-sized paper in New Orleans the other four days of the week, but it was too late to recoup the goodwill of readers and advertisers. In 2019, The Advocate of Baton Rouge purchased The Times-Picayune and, laying off 161 employees, including 65 journalists.76

The publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a family-owned and operated newspaper in Little Rock, opted for a more aggressive approach in 2019 – converting to digital delivery Monday through Saturday, with a Sunday-only print publication, distributed throughout the state. But he did so only after doing extensive reader research and analysis. Over the course of one and a half years, the paper spent $13 million purchasing iPads for its current print subscribers and sent across the state as many as 70 "trainers," who taught readers how to use the technology to get a better online experience with the newspaper. Executives calculated that the key to profitability was converting at least 70 percent of current print subscribers to iPad delivery at the same amount – $37 a month – as they pay to read the print editions. At the end of 2019, the paper reported conversion rates that exceeded 80 percent, and were as high as 100 percent. Since the Sunday paper was still attracting significant advertising and was profitable, the paper opted to continue printing and distributing a Sunday paper for the time being.77

With the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic resulting in dramatic declines in advertising, other dailies are making similar moves in 2020, but without the underlying research conducted by the Democrat-Gazette. Citing a major drop in advertising, The Tampa Bay Times was one of the first large papers to announce it was "temporarily" cutting back print publication to Sunday and Wednesday only, and would publish e-editions the other five days.78 Industry analysts doubt those papers that cut back in 2020 will resume daily print publication once the virus is under control. At that point, the real test for the large dailies will be whether readers renew their subscriptions and are finally willing to pay as much to read the paper online as they did to read the print version.

While successfully converting to digital-only delivery may offer a lifeline to the large regional and metro papers – especially if they can get their tens of thousands of subscribers to pay for the e-edition – small dailies and weeklies cannot rely on digital subscriber or advertising revenue to contribute significantly to the bottom line. For one thing, many of these papers have only a few thousand print subscribers – and very limited ability to increase the price of a subscription, especially those in economically struggling communities. Most small dailies and weeklies are further constrained by the small size of their markets and the number and size of local businesses that want to advertise.

Although small weeklies and dailies – especially those located in communities that are growing in population and are relatively affluent – can have higher profit margins than large dailies, they generate much less cash. A great proportion of their costs are fixed, so they have much less flexibility in terms of cutting expenses. Therefore, in order to succeed, publishers of weeklies and small dailies have to focus the majority of their attention on bringing in new sources of revenue – nondigital, as well as digital, from advertisers as well as subscribers. One publisher of a small weekly described such a strategy as "breaking out of jail" – looking beyond the geographic boundaries of the community where the newspaper is located to other markets and other opportunities to grow revenue.79 This can involve publishing glossy lifestyle magazines as well as staid phone directories, sponsoring in-person events, producing podcasts and videos, and establishing in-house digital agencies and e-commerce sites to serve local merchants. The key is diversifying, mixing and matching digital and nondigital products and services for both advertisers and readers, in an attempt to replace the lost print advertising revenue they historically relied on.

But, as the coronavirus has demonstrated, many forces are beyond the control of individual publishers of newspapers. With profit margins at most newspapers in the single digits, a bad quarter can sink both small weeklies, as well as large dailies. In 2020, many newspapers are looking at back-to-back money-losing quarters. The stakes – for both large dailies and small weeklies – have never been higher. Successfully transitioning readers to digital delivery may well save many dailies. The small weeklies and dailies, however, will need to continue to be both creative and disciplined in their strategies.

Next: The New Media Giants