The sky is falling on print newspapers faster than you think

Last October, a McKinsey report declared, “We believe that many of the people likely to abandon print newspapers and print consumer magazines have already done so…. We believe most of this core audience — households that have retained their print subscriptions despite having access to broadband — will continue to do so for now, effectively putting a floor on the print markets.”

Wow. Just because of inertia? Is the only medium-term threat to print the fact that most of its current audience will gradually die over the next 30 years? That would be great news, especially because nearly all newspapers still get most of their revenue from print advertising.

But it doesn’t feel right in a world in which even mature adults’ media consumption habits seem to be quickly evolving.

taking on water

Then, amid the hubbub about the Boston Globe’s delivery problems, I was struck by the Globe’s statement that they have only 115,000 daily print subscribers, and only 205,000 on Sunday. Really? I had had a sense that the Globe was still much bigger than that. So I poked around online, and, indeed found much larger numbers for Globe print circulation.

But they were from 2013, which is the last time print newspaper circulation figures were widely reported.

The simple chart below lays out the numbers for “total average print circulation” of the nation’s 25 largest newspapers as of March 2013. These are the basis for the figures you get if you Google search the issue or look for a list on Wikipedia. Then the chart compares these with the number of copies most recently reported to the Alliance for Audited Media (in September 2015) for “individually paid print circulation,” that is the number of copies being bought by subscription or at newsstands. This is the best indication of consumer demand for the product. In both cases, the figures are for weekday average circulation. Sunday numbers are generally higher.

A few quick observations:

· There remain only two print newspapers in the entire country (the Wall Street Journal and New York Times) that sell more than a half million copies per average weekday, only six that sell a quarter of a million copies and probably [correction: not many more than] 22 that sell more than 100,000.

· To be sure, the comparisons are not apples-to-apples. The 2013 figures include promotional copies. But the 2015 figures are not only more recent, but a better indication of consumer behavior — and the best measure of the audience most print advertisers are seeking to reach.

· Nearly everyone in publishing with whom I shared the 2015 paid figures found them surprisingly low. There is no question that they are dramatically lower than the widely available 2013 numbers.

· If the 2013 numbers represent the “reality” that even industry professionals have in their heads, but the 2015 numbers represent the facts on the ground, how long can it be before print advertising prices (and thus newspaper revenues) come under further severe pressure?

· Finally, and to return to the McKinsey report with which we began, if print circulation is much lower than generally believed, what basis is there for confidence the declines are ending and a plateau lies ahead?