Historic newspaper circulation data: how many fewer newspaper readers are there?

Okay, we get it, newspaper circulation is down. Everyone is ditching print for online.

But, I get the feeling it is a bit exaggerated. I’ve already posted here that we’re simply living through what we’ll someday call the newspaper bubble, the market swinging the industry nearer to a healthy environment.

I would love to really investigate the rise and fall of newspaper circulation numbers through generations, but the numbers are kept fairly private by those who have the best access, groups like the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a nonprofit that was formed in 1914 by publishers and advertisers wanting to provide the industry regulated, reputable circulation data – and they aren’t giving it out to me.

So, we tend to mostly guess from reports in newspapers that provide some information. I did find some great numbers from the Newspaper Association of America, though the data is only up to 2003, perhaps before industry fears went public and the newspaper bubble had clearly burst. After that date, the NAA makes you pay for the information.

Rather than forking out the $50, let’s just crunch what we have.

The numbers

As recent as 2003, there were more than 55 million daily newspapers circulated in the country, 3.5 million less than in 1960 and 7.5 million less than 1985, the highest nation-wide circulation number in the last half century, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

There were more newspapers with at least 250,000 readers in 2003 (36) than in 1950 (35), though eight less than 1993 (42), the historic peak of that number, a 16 percent decline.

The number of the smallest U.S. dailies – those with less than 50,000 readers – shrunk from nearly 1,600 to 1,239 in 2003, a 21 percent decline. The bottom half of the country’s largest daily newspapers – with circulations between 100,001 and 250,000 – also rapidly declined – from 84 in 1950 and a 1970 peak at 92 to 67 in 2003, a 27 percent trimming from its 1970 height and a 20 percent fall since 1950, according to the data.

Between 1950 and 2003, 32 more newspapers with circulations between 50,001 and 100,000 appeared, a 28 percent increase. Of course, that’s shady, because that increase is largely accounted for by the 25 newspapers that fell from the next highest circulation group, as discussed in the graf above.

The analysis

The number of the country’s largest papers stood firm, and the number of medium sized papers (50,001 to 100,000) increased. That can be explained by consolidation of or waning circulation numbers by newspapers that fit in the group between the two, papers with circulations between 100,001 and 250,000. The smallest papers either consolidated to fit into the medium sized group or folded entirely.

Still, at the heart of this is that a 60 percent increase in morning dailies and a 53 percent decline in evening newspapers means there were 18 percent less newspapers in 2003 than in 1950, according to the numbers. So one in five papers collapsed or consolidated since 1950, if my thinking is correct.

Over a half century that included the continued expansion of TV, the development of TV news, specialty radio news reporting, 24-hour cable news and the Internet, less than 20 percent of tightening doesn’t seem all that outrageous at all.

Circulation numbers have continued to decline since 2003, that is agreed and understood, but these numbers – I think – again show what we’re seeing is nothing more than a hemorrhaging of over speculation and expansion, not unlike what I posted on last week more directly.

Image courtesy.