U.S. newspaper circulation still down, but why?


On May 2, the Los Angeles Times reported that newspaper circulation for its Monday through Saturday daily editions fell from 1,253,849 to 907,997, a drop of 6.5 percent. The Times’ Sunday edition also had its circulation drop by 7.9 percent. On the same day, the Associated Press reported that overall newspaper circulation had fallen 1.9 percent.

Both the L.A. Times and AP stories attributed the drop in large part to the new federal do-not-call registry, which prohibits unsolicited telemarketing. That ban effectively eliminated the most effective way newspapers reach new customers. The other main cause of decreased circulation numbers as reported by the AP was increased caution among newspaper executives about reporting their own circulations in light of recent circulation scandals involving major newspapers.

While these two reasons might be legitimate factors contributing to the decline of newspaper readership, they do not fully explain the fact that fewer people are reading newspapers. The real reason for newspaper circulation’s precipitous decline is that newspapers no longer hold a monopoly over the presentation of news.

It is no coincidence that the drop in newspaper circulation has coincided with the rising popularity of the “new media:” Talk radio, cable news and the Internet. It used to be that in the pre-Internet age, people could only get their news from newspapers and network television.

Information was thus controlled and directed by a largely self-selecting group of people who would decide on a daily basis which stories would be published and which would not. The liberal leanings among many in the journalistic profession compounded this situation, and guaranteed that the focus of many stories would tend to favor a certain ideological outcome.

For people who did not agree with the liberal leanings of the journalistic corps, there was no alternative to the local or regional paper. If they wanted to keep abreast of current events, they were forced to receive filtered news from their local news outlet.

All this changed with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio. The brilliance of Limbaugh’s approach to programming was that it augmented his own opinions with news stories that were not ordinarily covered by the regular media. His show managed to successfully combine entertainment with education, filling a much needed vacuum in the news industry.

For the first time, people were given an opportunity to hear a wider variety of news and opinion that was normally absent from the dominant media. That people were eager for this new venue is evident in the popularity of Limbaugh’s show, which grew from a single station in Sacramento to a nationwide media empire, influencing the careers of Sean Hannity, Larry Elder and Michael Savage along the way.

The increased availability of the Internet further eroded newspapers’ dominance over news coverage. As more information became available online, consumers were able to search directly for news stories which interested them, or even do journalistic detective work themselves. Coupled with the appearance of news digest sites like the Drudge Report, the average American was able to find news independent of the major newspapers.

So what does this mean for the future of the newspaper industry? First, newspapers must realize that if they want to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers, they will have to diversify the political makeup of the journalistic corps in order to more accurately reflect the nation as a whole. The consequences of failing to do so can be seen in the L.A. Times, whose large circulation drop has coincided with an equally conspicuous increase in the strident liberalism of their editorial board.

On the brighter side, newspapers are still dominant in the production of news. With the exception of cable news, much of the new media relies heavily on stories produced by newspapers. The new media cannot match the professional approach to news making that newspapers bring to the table. If newspapers can manage to appeal to a larger set of the population without sacrificing quality, then they will be able to beat back the incursions made by the new media.

Sean Paroski, whose column appears every Thursday, is a senior applied mathematics major.