History will tell: the great newspaper bubble of the 20th century

When our grandchildren read about newspapers, 2006 will be the bellwether year, when daily circulation dropped by nearly 3 percent and 3.5 percent for Sunday papers, the worst fall in the modern era.

Because, of course, in 50 years, beyond novelty, nobody will be chopping down trees and shipping them to be processed, milled, refined, shipped, designed, cut, printed and shipped to be read and then thrown out.

Of course, newspaper circulation was slipping for more than 20 years before then, but history forgets the details.

Look, the reality is that Baby Boomers will really be remembered in history books as the generation that lived through the great newspaper bubble of the 20th century. The dot.com bubble blew and burst awfully quick; newspapers are just seeing a slow-cooked version.


Industry analysts are really scared about declines in circulation, like the 3 percent drop in 2006 mentioned above. But we have to put that into some context.

Between 1960 and 2003, a time period that included the rise of TV news, 24-hour cable news and Internet news sources, U.S. daily newspapers collectively lost less than four million readers, just a 6 percent drop, according to numbers from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

People will point to rapid declines since 2003, considering the largest newspapers in the country sell roughly 10 percent fewer copies than in 2000, but some of that loss has come intentionally.

The Internet age of niche-advertising and skepticism over the solubility of newspaper ad-space have made advertisers more cost-conscious and desirous of a profiled reader, like someone who chooses to read a print newspaper: for many dailies that means white, middle-aged, educated and relatively affluent, a fine demographic to attract. Other readers that newspapers have gotten to inflate circulation numbers simply aren’t worth what higher circulation numbers bring in for advertising dollars anymore. So these large newspapers are in search of a circulation number that can be sustained with interest, not costly promotional offers and inefficient salesmanship.

There is a school of thought these days that you stop actively selling altogether and let the readership seek its natural level,” said Jack Klunder, senior vice president for circulation at The Los Angeles Times. “We’re not at that point, but we’re running far fewer promotions, accepting that some number of people are never going to buy the paper, long run, at full price. Source

Making money

At the end of the 19th century, newspapers were coming into their own in the United States. Beyond public service, newspapers were becoming big business. In the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers would wildly overestimate their circulation numbers to be able to charge higher rates for advertising.

By 1914, that had become so obscene and widely abused that a group of publishers and advertisers got together to provide the industry regulated, reputable circulation data, forming the nonprofit Audit Bureau of Circulations, which is referenced in about every newspaper article about readership ever.

Circulation numbers, as you might expect, plummeted as the ABC’s influence and auditing ability grew and their influence surged. The second half of the 20th century featured its own version of circulation over-expansion, promotions and active salesmanship that brought in readers outside of its natural niche.

That would be like representatives from the TV station Women’s Entertainment encouraging 19-34-year-old men to watch WE’s programming. It would inflate the number of viewers, but advertisers wouldn’t be getting anymore value. Rather than pay for more viewers/readers in this age, newspapers should be cutting costs on promotions and letting their overreaching, over-speculated circulation numbers fall to ready and normal values.

It’s all going to develop. Online advertising will come and Internet video quality will continue to develop so newspapers will be able to sell visual advertising on the web, too.

Internet advertising interest will develop because the young cohort that is now receiving all their news from online sources will get older and become consumers like the generation before, except they will learn about products from the web. Stories that suggest one newspaper reader is worth 100 in online advertising dollars will fall away.


Something prescient comes from a section from a history of state government reporting in Pennsylvania, written by Gary Tuma, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette state Capitol reporter from 1989 to 1992 and current spokesman for state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia. (I reference this source and explain it more thoroughly in this post). A passage reads:

During the second half of the [19th] century, the numbers of newspapers and their circulations surged. By the 1890s, most towns in Pennsylvania had several weeklies and two or more daily newspapers, often allied with political forces. Philadelphians could choose from as many as 10 daily papers, and Pittsburghers from seven dailies, not counting foreign-language papers in each place. At one point, Lancaster had five dailies; Altoona, Erie, Reading and Scranton had four dailies each… Local newspapers were the sole means of mass communication.

Philadelphia never needed 10 daily newspapers. No market as mature as the newspaper industry can sustain competition of that size. This is the age of consolidation of every kind. The market dictates it, no matter how white people feel about it.

Nine… nine newspapers from Philadelphia had reporters, if not bureaus, to cover state government in Harrisburg during the first half of the 20th century: the Philadelphia North American, Philadelphia Press, Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Philadelphia Record, Philadelphia Item, Philadelphia Tribune, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

And hell, during the day, most of these reporters were drinking, gambling or both.

At least one single daily newspaper will remain in Philadelphia, though, of course, its structure will be different. Newspapers will have to develop, so, at the least, staffs will be much smaller and covering more intimately the communities from which their readers come.

Rather than accepting a much needed, natural and market-driven downsizing, we’re frantic. The industry will be strengthened and more efficient in the end, 20 years from now, perhaps (and ready for the next disaster).

We’re just too close to the newspaper to read the print.

Image courtesy of Boston.com.