Correction to This Article
The article quoted the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) as estimating that an average of 30.4 million Americans buy a newspaper Monday through Saturday and about 40 million do so on Sunday. As the article stated in a subsequent sentence, those figures represent only the 379 newspapers that reported to ABC. Although they are the largest papers, they represent only about one-quarter of the nation's dailies.

The accelerating decline of newspapers

By Frank Ahrens
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

U.S. newspaper circulation has hit its lowest level in seven decades, as papers across the country lost 10.6 percent of their paying readers from April through September, compared with a year earlier.

The newest numbers on newspaper circulation, released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, paint a dismal picture for an industry already feeling the pressures of an advertising slump coupled with the worst business downturn since the Great Depression.

The ABC data estimate that 30.4 million Americans now pay to buy a newspaper Monday through Saturday, on average, and about 40 million do so on Sunday. These figures come from 379 of the nation's largest newspapers. In 1940, 41.1 million Americans bought a daily newspaper, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Average daily circulation of all U.S. newspapers has been in decline since 1987 as papers have faced mounting competition for reader attention and advertising. Online, newspapers are still a success -- but only in readership, not in profit. Ads on newspaper Internet sites sell for pennies on the dollar compared with ads in their ink-on-paper cousins.

In September, for instance, Nielsen reported that the New York Times was the Internet's most popular newspaper site, with an average of 21.5 million unique visitors per month, up 7 percent compared with a year earlier. Yet last week, the Times Co. reported a 27 percent drop in ad revenue for the quarter. At The Washington Post, which has lost $143 million through the first six months of 2009, the number of monthly unique online users was down 29 percent, to 9.2 million, compared with September of last year, just before the presidential election.

A number of factors contribute to the lower circulation numbers. Several publishers have stopped delivering newspapers to far-flung sites to save fuel and production costs. Publishers also have hiked prices.

The trend remains doggedly downward, said Alan D. Mutter, a former journalist and cable television executive who now consults and writes a blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur.

"Newspapers have ceased to be a mass medium by any stretch of the imagination," Mutter said. According to his analysis, which includes the circulation of all 1,400 daily U.S. newspapers, only 13 percent of Americans, or about 39 million, now buy a daily newspaper, down from 31 percent in 1940.

Almost without exception, the circulation gainers are the nation's smallest daily newspapers, which tend to focus almost all of their limited resources on highly local news that is not covered by larger outside organizations. Also, these papers tend to have a lock on local ad markets.

The York (Pa.) Daily Record showed the largest year-over-year percentage circulation gain, growing nearly 17 percent, to 55,370. Of the top 10 gainers, only two newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal and the Las Vegas Review-Journal -- have circulations of more than 100,000.

The losses are steep at almost all of the nation's largest newspapers. In the April-September period, USA Today lost 17 percent of its circulation from the year before, toppling the colorful daily from its longtime perch as the biggest U.S. paper, a spot now claimed by the Wall Street Journal, which charges for some online content and actually saw its circulation tick up less than 1 percent, to 2 million per day. USA Today, which depends heavily on the beleaguered travel and hotel industries, now clocks in at 1.9 million per day.

Rounding out the five largest papers, the New York Times lost 7 percent of its daily paid circulation, The Los Angeles Times lost 11 percent and The Washington Post lost 6 percent. The San Francisco Chronicle lost nearly 26 percent of its paid daily readers, and the Dallas Morning News and Newark Star-Ledger each lost about 22 percent.

According to the data, The Post now sells 582,844 papers from Monday through Saturday and 822,208 papers on Sunday, a 5 percent drop from the corresponding period last year.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company