Monday, October 26th, 2009

A Graphic History of Newspaper Circulation Over the Last Two Decades

Every six months, the Audit Bureau of Circulations releases data about newspapers and how many people subscribe to them. And then everyone writes a story about how some newspapers declined some amount over the year previous. Well, that's no way to look at data! It's confusing-and it obscures larger trends. So we've taken chunks of data for the major newspapers, going back to 1990, and graphed it, so you can see what's actually happened to newspaper circulation. (We excluded USA Today, because we don't care about it. If you're in a hotel? You're reading it now. That's nice.)


Some surprising trends: the New York Post has the same circulation it had two decades ago! Also, the once-captivating battle of the New York City tabloids has become completely moot.

Some unsurprising trends: the Los Angeles Times is an absolute horrorshow. Not shown: the Boston Globe disappearing off the bottom of this chart, in a two decade decline from 521,000 in 1990 to 264,105 this year.

Related: How Are Newspapers Reporting on Newspaper Circulation? An Analysis of the Last 16 Years of New York Times Circulation Reporting.

54 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

I can't help but notice The Post's climb roughly corresponding to 9/11 and the formative Bush Years.

Also in concert with cover price slashing!

HiredGoons (#603)

"Sell! Sell! Sell!"

Peteykins (#1,916)

It's like watching them go over a hurdle at the edge of a cliff, no?

Baboleen (#1,430)

Thelma and Louise Syndrome.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Cue credits.

ncsuandrew12 (#2,084)

What is that supposed to mean? 9/11 makes sense (it's a New York paper) but what do the Bush years have to do with anything?

So, looks like things fell off the table around 2006. Yet, the internet has been around for a while now?

Please interpret for someone out of their area of expertise!

/For shame, I should know more.

caitlinate (#416)

Simplistically, 2005 = The Huffington Post.

beingiseasy (#1,735)

new media gained more of a market share

Ron Obvious (#351)

Part of it is ideological in nature. When Karl Rove babbled aloud about an era of complete Republican dominance, a lot of newspapers went long on right-wing boosterism on both their editorial and news pages. By 2006, most of their readers were no longer buying the Kool-Aid and fled to on-line media like HuffPo. My hunch is that at some point, they'll tack back left again, but much too late to save themselves.

Just a Lawyer (#2,037)

Other potentially interesting dates:

Google News Beta = 2002
NY Times editorial admitting errors in their coverage of WMDs in the run up to Iraq war = 2004
Judith Miller contempt controversy = 2005
Google news leaves Beta = 2006

red seewun@twitter (#225,136)

@Ron Obvious could you please point out the newspapers in the chart above that are or were, even in 2006, "long on right-wing boosterism"?

tromano (#980)

What would be nice is if someone could juxtapose the growth of internet use worldwide with these Death of Media charts.

HiredGoons (#603)

I, for one, would like to see a chart of something juxtaposed with everything else. I think then we'd get a clear picture of what-the-fuck is going on here.

Dewey (#2,035)

I like the comments 603 and 617. These 2 combined (plus the article itself), show that it is not ALL the fault of the internet that newspapers have declined. The decline of the newspapers is mostly the fault of the CONTENT of the newspapers as well the extremeness of the editorial slant that many MSM newspapers opted to indulge.

beingiseasy (#1,735)

I wouldn't say it's simply that content has declined, it's that advertisers who paid for the content (readers basically only pay for the paper, ink, and delivery) found that newspapers no longer had a corner on the market. check out a blog post I wrote on this subject

libmas (#231)

I just had an essay spiked by the WSJ. Seeing this chart, with the blue line way up above all the other lines, makes it sting just that much more. Thanks, Awl!

KarenUhOh (#19)

They all appear to be chasing the same story.


HiredGoons (#603)

I know, right? She's unstoppable.

draeton (#2,040)

As used in a Clockwork Orange, "absolute horrorshow" would be a superlatively good thing.

Singulus (#2,041)

Does someone have access to the historic data, Circulation since the dawn of newspapers ?

sachxn (#2,042)

in future after the release of few good e readers..some 2-3 years down the line the circulation may drop significantly further…


marlond (#2,044)

I expect to see another bump in circulation when newspapers go to LARGE PRINT later this year.

try2breal (#2,054)

Ron Obvious…are you seriously trying to say that the LA Times and NY Times "went long on right wing boosterism?" Because they were influenced by Karl Rove? There must be a joke in there that I'm not getting.

jbs (#2,059)

It's absolutely delightful to watch the left try and blame the death of newspapers on them being too conservative. That's presumably also why FoxNews ratings are better than every other cable news channel — because they're so LIBERAL. It must be so liberating to be unconstrained by facts or data. :-)

Witless (#2,079)

I think you depict an incomplete assessment of the situation. Fox was successful as a right wing outlet pretty much from the start. The NYT, LAT, Boston Globe, Washington Post and the like are on the liberal end of the mainstream. If they tried to emulate Fox and the like in an attempt to grab some of that advertising cash, you'd expect their more liberal readership to be turned off by it, and see a corresponding decrease in circulation. In contrast, adding a conservative columnist at, say, the NY Post wouldn't hurt their circulation numbers because their readership is already conservative. Let me put it this way: if Fox news were to start to feature liberal viewpoints quite prominently in their broadcasts on a regular basis, it'd be very likely that it would cause several of their right wing viewers (who are likely to also be their most devoted listeners) to tune out. It's called self-selection bias.

gaskaggs (#2,055)

Note that the LA Times took a huge cliff-dive in 2005. This coincides exactly when Robert Sheer was dropped and Jonah Goldberg added, respectively, as editorial contributors.

The entire reason why? Likely not. Contributing factor? Definitely.

I also quit the Times then.


jbs (#2,059)

Actually, gaskaggs, your desire to blame the decline of the msm on being too conservative blinded you to the actual DATA. 2005 is not a cliff-dive for the LA times. IT IS THE SOLE UPTICK IN A DECLINE that stretches from 1990 to 2009. I've not checked your dates, but if 2005 is when the dropped Sheer and added Goldberg, then that means Jonah Goldberg's arrival marked the only year in the past 2 decades that the LA Times did not LOSE subcribers. Care to rethink your point my liberal friend? :-)

Witless (#2,079)

JBSm actually, the small increase is from 2004 to 2005: in other words, the uptick actually happened during 2004. Let me phrase this another way: say the measurements were taken on January first of 2004 and on January first of 2005: the increase in readership did not happen in 2005, but 2004. The slight uptick cannot be attributed to Goldberg, since he was only added in 2005. In other words, if Jonah Goldberg were to influence readership one way or the other, you'd expect the difference to be seen in the year AFTER his hiring, that is from 2005 to 2006.

MarkLoundy (#2,060)

This has been going on since World War II. What we're seeing is the terminal death spiral.
See "Circling The Drain" in The Digital Journalist:

hankscott (#2,064)

Any way to correlate this with what seems like a marked decline in American intelligence and the quality of social discourse? I continue to think that the movie "Idiocracy" tells the story of our civilization.

in_awe (#2,063)

I just spoke with Al Gore. He suggests that if you truncate the data and flip the chart upside down, you have a subscription hockey stick that matches CO2 emissions and global warming, from that he suggests that you can infer that progressives think that average sea levels will rise 200' before the NYT and LAT regain their reader base. He urges everyone to get behind Obama's plan to rescue them with a huge tax payer bailout.

Gore is putting Pinch Sulzberger in for a Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe that'll help circulation.

Or somethin'…

sajrocks (#2,067)

Lemmings tethered to the tank that plunges off the mountainside in _Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade_. Weeeeeeeeeeeee! Where *are* the digital circulation figures?

hankscott (#2,064)

Would be interesting to layer the number of web uniques for each property over this.

Flashman (#418)

Hmmm, interesting. I'm seeing a *very* strong correlation between BoingBoing linkage and Awl commenter enrollments, starting right around November of 2009.

Newsboi (#2,072)

As a publisher of two local newspapers in New Jersey- I am here to tell you that local newspaper circulation is actually going up and not down.
True daily papers are declining.
Local newspapers are to newspaper medium as twitter is to the internet.
We are small bursts of information about what is going on in a given community at the time.
I leave the hard news to the daily papers and of course to the internet and TV but if people are looking for a good news easy read -they pick up a local paper. We also host a website: and I think you would find it quite interesting -even if you don't reside in our area.Here we post national stories and we get hits from all over the world.
Newspapers have played an important part in our society for hundreds of years.
Some may see it as a 19 century medium but I am telling you; local news, and the spread of it in newspapes is here to stay.
And by the way -we only use recycled paper to create our publications- so no trees are dying.

Easterling (#2,086)

It would appear that WSJ subscribers who assumed that they were reading nonfiction are begining to realize that they were in fact reading a work of fiction all along.

jskoziol4 (#2,100)

Put aside the partisan bickering – it's the rise of the internet and (almost) on-demand news from the cable-news networks. Unless reading the paper is part of morning ritual then you're far more likely to get your nes when you want it, how you want it from an online provider.

ErnieLane (#2,121)

I think it's more simple than that. Basically, people want the 5 W's in their news, and the newspapers don't deliver. Eventually, a lousy product's sales disappear.

sajrocks (#2,067)

Choire – Thinking of you…

"The Asahi’s morning circulation was down by 0.1 per cent in the first half of 2009 â€" figures for its main rivals were similar â€" whereas weekday newspaper circulation in the US fell by 10.6 per cent in the six months to September."

Magician (#2,570)

It's even worse than it looks. Since 1990, the U.S. population has grown 23%, but newspaper circulation is down.

Rains (#8,387)

It is a pity to see such graphs. It is only yesterday that I watched a film about different means of mass media (I got it at shared files SE ). While TV, Radio and printed newspapers lose its positions Internet media becomes strong and highly attractive. I think the way out for the newspaper is in the quality of information, in its uniqueness. This is the reason for growing of The Wall Street Journal.

semiramida (#11,073)

This is the most informed writing I’ve ever seen on this subject .

Tate (#14,048)

I had no idea these circulation numbers were this low. I've been in the magazine printing business for the past 15 years and I know we are struggling for readers. However, we still have our advertising business to pull us through. Newspapers don't have that big of ad business, so I'm wondering how these guys, like Boston Globe, are making it?

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