Average is Over: Newspaper Edition

Joshua Benton at the LA Times illustrates average is over for newspapers. On the left the print circulation of major newspapers in 2002. The NYTimes is the leader but other newspapers follow closely behind in a slowly decaying curve likely related to city size. On the right, 2019 digital subscriptions. The NYTimes dominates. Only the Washington Post is even in the same league (The Wall Street Journal, however, should also have made Benton’s list at 1.5 million digital subscribers.) Without classified ads and other local information, for which there are now multiple online substitutes, there isn’t a big demand for local newspapers. News is now national and only a handful of newspapers can survive at national scale. Moreover, the few who can survive at national scale are now so much better than their competitors precisely because they can afford to be better.




Why are you providing 2002 data only for subscriptions and not for newsstand sales?

Presumably, the Washington and New York papers are benefiting from extralocal distribution to their target audience. (Their target audience is indubitably like their reporters and editors - partisan Democrats who lie to themselves and others).

It's an old story.

"If you don't read the papers you are uninformed. If you read the papers your are misinformed." Mark Twain

I wouldn't read any of them if they paid me.

I find the truth to lie in between


Odd not only to cite 2002 data without distinguishing subscriptions from newsstand sales but to cite no data earlier than from 2002.

The demise of daily newspapers commenced some twenty years earlier, with the advent of 24-hour cable television nationwide.

As Boomers became American advertisers' "target demographic", the content for newsweeklies (Time, Newsweek, USNWR of the day) began dumbing down across the Eighties: editors began to use graphics to "illustrate" stories (serve as eye candy to catch readers, ostensibly) and to offer less and less information, illustrating stories with cartoons and caricatures more elaborate than the stories told, et cetera.

Images (no matter how contrived or edited) were already replacing words for "content delivery", just as cable fare, popular music and audiophilia were eclipsing the reading of fiction as entertainment and pastime. (American adult literacy levels were permitted to decline across the closing decades of the 20th century, too, which went mostly unremarked.)

Their cohort the first to be raised by TV the Electric Babysitter, Boomers' devotion to cable helped undermine print journalism all the more, augmented further by the advent of commercial internet traffic across the Nineties.

The deep and extensive corruption of our contemporary Media Establishment could be addressed in part by returning to the status quo ante: disallow 24/7/365 (366) production and distribution schedules for all the overwrought stupid crap being purveyed: reduce ALL cable transmissions and internet service to 16-hour cycles out of each 24-hour period.

This would begin to encourage less electricity consumption now that Technogenic Climate Change is unambiguously coming after us all.

Limit "screen appeal" to no more than sixteen hours a day in each and every one of the globe's time zones, or at least let the experiment begin here in the US.

That's actually worsening local corruption - no oversight to the Mayor of your average mid-size city.


Local news is like local elections - both are integral to what was considered a hallmark of American democracy, which was in holding those in power to account.

How well did local newspapers hold to account, say, the Daley political machine in Chicago? Among other things, vote fraud by that machine may have provided the margin of victory for the Democrats in Illinois in the very close 1960 presidential election. And there are surely many other examples going back to Tammany Hall and beyond.

Let's not get carried away pining for a golden age of accountability that never was.

'How well did local newspapers hold to account, say, the Daley political machine in Chicago?'

See below about power structure, but much of the corruption in Chicago was reported on by local media. That many people did not care is another subject for itself - after all, Daley was re-elected even after more than credible accounts of his corruption.

'Let's not get carried away pining for a golden age of accountability that never was.'

Or let us at least recognize that it was the local media that was not part of the power structure that revealed what was going on. That many voters did not care is another story.

One that can be seen today, without needing to look back at the past at all.

If people didn't care, and newspapers reporting on it wasn't impactful, then again, this whole "local news standing tall against corruption and malfeasance" narrative is still cant.

'If people didn't care, and newspapers reporting on it wasn't impactful'

Why yes, Chicago has a long history of corruption - you did see that the comment was in reply to a particular point, one assumes.

However, there are other localities than Chicago, where local officials lose office or elections after their corruption is exposed. You might be aware of what is happening Puerto Rico, that being a current example where local media standing tall against corruption and malfeasance narrative is still valid.

Lulz. Puerto Rico's had a hopelessly corrupt government for decades. Try again, dummy.

'Puerto Rico's had a hopelessly corrupt government for decades.'

Whose governor has just been forced to resign after mass demonstrations sparked by local media.

Try again, since this is what happened over the last couple of weeks - 'The allegations against Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló make him look like a villainous politician straight out of a cartoon: He participated in profane chats that made light of dead Hurricane Maria victims, and there are corruption charges against officials in his administration.

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, many of whom are frustrated with life on an island still struggling to recover from a financial crisis and the natural disaster, want him out. And after a week of sustained protests, they won. Rosselló announced late Wednesday that he will resign Aug. 2, under threats of impeachment. ....

On July 13, the Puerto Rican nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of private chats between Rosselló and his officials and aides from last year, conversations conducted over the messaging app Telegram. All men, they made misogynistic jokes, made fun of gay people, insulted journalists, joked about shooting San Juan’s female mayor, made light of Hurricane Maria victims, and joked about the weight of a citizen with whom the governor had posed in a photo.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez did a good job of highlighting and translating some of the most jaw-dropping chats from various officials close to the governor.

Such as: On Hurricane Maria victims: “Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?”' https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/19/why-puerto-rico-is-crisis/?utm_term=.08d31c55df4a

You know, originally what was written was 'You might be dimly aware of what is happening Puerto Rico,' but I can see now that the real mistake was not taking out 'dimly,' but using 'aware.'

Once again, because you seem to be incapable of grasping this: nailing one politician's pelt to the wall after decades of systemic corruption does nothing to prove your point about the role of local news. Especially this particular politician, because it sounds from that story as if people were less incensed by the corruption than some mean things he said. So you're still 0-fer this conversation, sorry.

Yes, saying a few insensitive things is what seemed to set them off, not the corruption, and certainly not the policies that many of those very same voters supported which have bankrupted Puerto Rico. Free Puerto Rico from the U.S. now!

This is mostly heroic myth. Local journalism has always been about access, not exposure. Particularly as local government and local journalism evolved into general political conformity, corruption stories tend to be pursued reluctantly and late.

'Local journalism has always been about access, not exposure.'

Guess it depends on your perspective. And to what extent you think that the local media is part of the local power structure, which is another question.

However, only the local news covers the views of the local candidates in local elections. Including, at least potentially, which candidates are under investigation for shoplifting, for example.

It sort of worked when most cities had competing papers. Most people fifty years ago could tell you which of the local papers was allied to what faction. Even if one was a Hearst paper. That created some competition. Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, etc... each got worse when when the other daily died.

'It sort of worked when most cities had competing papers.'

Yep, as I attempted to cover using the term 'power structure.' I remember when most average size cities had at least two papers - in DC, the Post and the Star, for example. Anybody not familiar with that era is welcome to be skeptical about a single source of local news being a source of particular accountability.

I'm sure Ilhan is your favorite Pol! Suits you perfectly.

I think the interesting story going forward is how that local news is going to get out. Certainly some will not be covered at all, but generally speaking it is hard to imagine that there is NO demand for local news and that NOBODY will meet that demand.

I think a little clue shows up in the menu of my NYT app. After categories for "Politics", "Business", "Sports" and of course "New York" (among many many others), there is a category for "Australia".

The Times felt the need to explain this: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/world/australia/faq-nytaustralia-bureau.html

Essentially, they identified a burgeoning audience and went after it with local (or actually national, just a different nation) coverage. Presumably this is enough for many international-minded Aussies to feel like they're getting their money's worth from a NYT subscription.

Maybe they'll go after LA next, with dedicated LA coverage that can be easily fed to residents while being ignored by everyone else. The national coverage is most critical, so I'd guess a bit of local coverage would be enough to convince many Angelenos to give up on the LA Times and splash on a NYT subscription. Repeat for Houston, etc.

The problem with this line of thinking is that people were predicting the death of local news twenty years ago, and they weren't correct. I see no reason why local news won't continue to support itself with advertising.

Local news is mostly done via Facebook groups.

Local news was about a resident finding a problem, calling a newspaper, reporter comes out, writes a story, takes some photos.

The resident is now taking the photos and writing the story themselves. There's no business there.

Local news also consists of advertising for local events. There at a number of events at the local park where I live--Mardi Gras, Halloween, parades for various holidays, etc.--and folks want to know that schedule.

As you say, though, most of that is done via Facebook groups or similar social media outlets.

There's also now things like Patch. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patch_Media

My impression was that news suppliers had become _more_ local, not less over the last 20 years.

How much are digital subscriptions relevant, though? Aren't news outlets making most of their money off of advertising (i.e., pageviews), like they always did?

To put it another way, every local TV station still has a news operation. How many subscriptions do they have?

Nobody pays as much for digital ads as they did for print. Subscriptions allow you to somewhat guarantee an audience for advertisers.

And how many digital subscriptions are corporate? And maybe don't really represent active users?

Corporate subscriptions are the best subscriptions.

If you're a newspaper maybe. I suspect they're a lot like Planet Fitness memberships - the real money is in the people who don't actually use the service they're paying for.

But if I'm an advertiser, I care whether the subscription numbers represent people who are really going to see my ads. Anyway, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison to 2002 print numbers because of this.

No. They are good because they get in front of people with money. People will read them if they are free.
Do you work in media?

I work in being skeptical of numbers people have an incentive to inflate.

What fraction of corporate subscriptions actually represent eyeballs? Is it 1%? I'd be surprised if it was that high.

NYT and WaP both report federal news, bout national government. Swampers cannot deal with more than two reporters.

My mid-sized sunbelt city (about 2 million population) has a newspaper that is considered one of the best for a non-major. Yet, they make very little effort to make the digital edition appealing. Why is that? Sure, there are a few local and state stories, but they usually have little substance; more what a local politician has said or done to offend another local politician. LA is the second largest (by population) city in America. Moreover, it's part of the digital landscape: entertainment, tech, etc. that is Calif. One would think that people in LA and Calif. would want to read the digital edition of the LA Times. I don't read the LA Times. Is it not worth the read?

My mid-sized sunbelt city (about 2 million population)

That's not a mid-sized city.

Go to news.google.com and search for a big national or international news subject like "Boris Johnson" or "US China Trade War". You will find literally dozens, if not hundreds, of articles from papers all over the world. National and international news is easy to find with tons of producers, and I personally have never found a need to subscribe to any particular publication to get it. I guess to stand out in this situation, you truly do need to differentiate yourself somehow (Average is Over) and the NYT has done that by being slightly more detailed in its stories (their Epstein articles, for instance, have more lurid details than their competitors) and the Washington Post has done that by going all out on being THE Anti-Trump paper (tens of millions of people hate him so that's a huge market).

Local news, though, is really important and there's far fewer possible sources. I could stay "rationally ignorant" of Brexit or even the 2020 election and I'd be fine, these things don't really impact me. But if I stay ignorant of things like which local highways are going to be closed for construction or how the new mayor is changing trash collection policies, that could actually impact me in a negative way. You'd think that having an important product that people need + few producers would make local news big.

I don't subscribe to any local papers. I get my local news primarily through an online-only blog that has 2-3 journalists and covers exclusively local stories, plus the website of a local news station, which covers a mix of local and national stories. Both are thankfully free for now. If either decided to paywall, I'd seriously consider.

The irony is local news is the only news that matters for most people. It has a direct impact on their lives. National news is mostly trivia. In my opinion, being up-to-date about what's happening in Washington, but clueless about events at your local city hall makes you dumb, but smart.

Outside of the U.S., the public BBC/CBC/ABC (British, Canadian, Australian) seem to be thriving by taking the radio->television->online route. These public broadcasters have a local presence due to radio.

Local radio stations that focus on traffic/news also seem to be expanding online. I think it is because they were always geared towards timely information.

I'm not sure if the demise of newspapers is due to average-is-over; it is more adapt-or-die given the new environment.

The correct take is that like cable news these numbers are tiny compared to social media. Although they clearly influence "opinion makers" and politicians. How many echos in the media echo chamber do we need anyway? Radio is a smart idea. People spend a lot of time in cars.

Americans today perhaps spend more time in their cars interacting with their mobile phones than with their automobiles or with the traffic surrounding them.

The biggest dagger to newspapers has been the decline of the big box retailer. Their advertising spending kept the price of a newspaper very low for a long time. Amazon does not advertise in newspapers.

As someone who develops for e-commerce sites I have to ask. How many of those digital subscriptions are bots? (Dare I say Russian ones?)

The digital subscribers are paying subscribers--bots don't pay.

Which, again, is why subscriptions are valuable to advertisers.

Yes paid (assuming it means actually spends money and doesn’t include e.g. “30 day free trial”) makes bot activity less likely but not completely out of the question. There is a recognized phenomenon of publishers and authors buying up copies of their own books (particularly political books) to influence the Times Bestseller list etc. You can’t imagine newspapers fudging their stats for some reason?

Well, I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories, all I’m saying is be very skeptical about e-commerce data. It is very easy to game.

I agree that local news coverage is nowhere near as good as it once was. And, yes, it matters. Because if you live in an urban area what your City and County government do is likely to affect you a whole lot more than what your federal or state government does.

TV has never done local news well: it's always been about a fire, a lurid murder, etc. Whereas print reporters used to go to City Hall and get the interviews and analyze the alignment of interests and politics that caused some things to advance and others to languish.

As big newspapers increasingly become national platforms they will inevitably less interested in covering local news. For what does someone in Michigan or California care about a borough president in New York City?

Local news coverage was supported mostly by local advertising and now it's not, and without a viable business model it's not going to happen.

In Phoenix by far the best local news comes from the website of a local talk radio station. Putting it side-by-side with the other "local" paper, a Gannett atrocity, the difference is stark.

We get a free local paper that has remarkably good coverage of topics like school board candidates, area transportation plans, school rankings, etc. Things that actually have an impact on people less lives. Generally numerate and literate, which is more than one can say for the nearest urban paper. It’s done with editions for each major suburb.

The other one that’s interesting is the Business Journal, which is done for many cities. Focused perspective, obviously, but a good bit of useful general info comes through. It’s the only thing we actually subscribe to now.

I don’t see much evidence in the news aggregators I use of systematic hard hitting oversight local reporting on the corruption and other problems of Baltimore, Chicago, LA, Houston, or any other metro areas. How often do the papers get there before the FBI perp walks? It looks like a target rich environment for reporting.

Such is life in Trump's America.

Your favela's newpaper, Fala Roça (https://falaroca.com/), might as well be a crime and corruption blotter.

Not true at all. Crime is illegal in Brazil now.

Crime is illegal in the United States too.

Crime is illegal in France as well, what a coincidence!

Crime is illegal in China!

They figured out the Fox/CNN/MSNBC business model: tribal partisanship sells!

+1, but of course, the big papers are still in denial that they're partisan.

Yikes - I can't think of a news outlet that deserves that less.

As some of the comments hint at, we may need to define "local" better. Take Cleveland. The "local" paper (from a national perspective) is the Plain Dealer, and it has indeed suffered. But the PD years ago bought out the Sun Press, which publishes (paper and digital) eleven hyper-local editions, some covering just one suburban town. Obituaries (do not overlook these as a source of revenue: an obituary generally costs hundreds of dollars to run), local sports events, lengthy letters to the editors where locals can rant (sort of like here), school meeting coverage, the ever-popular police blotter, local real estate transactions (with values, so you can do "what is my house worth?"), etc. Yeah, you could piece this all together from city-hall websites and blogs and such, but these papers provide a weekly one-stop-shop I have not seen beaten online yet. There is definitely something about seeing YOUR kid's softball game picture in actual print. I have even heard, though cannot prove, that Sun's profits are what keep the PD afloat.

Of course, none of this solves the bigger problem of city-level investigative reporting, etc. etc.

Why would I pay money to read a bunch of stuff reprinted from WaPo NYT or AP/Reuters when I can just subscribe to WaPo, NYTimes or AP/Reuters?

In other words, how much original reporting does (say) the Houston Chronicle actually do?

Much of their online site essentially is like a scam to sell advertising space by reprinting other people's material.
(Of course, isn't that what most daily newspapers have always been ? When was the last time you remember reading a newspaper that wasn't 70+% ad space?)

LAT's making big improvments in online format and experience. We'll see how things turn out.

hey washingtonpost.com! you do demon diagnostics
if democratic presidential candidate marianne williamson is seeing demons we wanna know more about these dark psychic forces
isn't is more likely she is batshitcrazy?

isn't it more likely she is batshitcrazy?

My heart bleeds for the newspapers across America. I think we were a better nation when they were all here.

But many that were here 20 years ago -- after decades of serving their local areas -- are gone. Many more will go in the next 20 years. And yet the appetite for news is still there. There is no one else I see who will cover local news in a thorough and objective way besides the local newspaper outside the big cities.

What I don't think anybody else has said before is due to personal financial pressures, a lot of people who would have subscribed (either hard copy or digital) in earlier times feel their can't afford their local paper anymore. That couple of hundred dollars a year is a lot to many more people than it used to be.

The disappearance of local newspapers is another sign that lots of working class and lower middle class people can't afford what their parents could. That makes my heart bleed too.

It's all very sad.

Yes, something has been lost with the decline of local newspapers.

But much of their content was fluff and info-tainment. Even most of the serious "reporting" was filtered through a statist J-Skool lens. Losing this "news" to much more productive online social media and tech firms is a more efficient use of labor. So there IS an upside to the cratering local newspaper.

I know many ex-reporters who have re-invented themselves - they've found productive careers as mortgage brokers, PR agents, Baristas, food service workers and prostitutes.

I'm not surprised the LA Times is doing better than most other big city papers. LA Times has long had a reputation for being a reporter-driven paper, diametrically opposite that of the NY Times.

Forget my previous comment. The LA Times is a better paper. But its not doing well in the digital world because it is a reporter-driven and, thus, locally oriented paper. That's why I liked it when I lived there. Unfortunately, local news (which is the only news I read a paper for) simply is not cutting it anymore.

At one time I read a hard copy of the local paper every day, every Saturday's Daily Racing Form, and three big city Sunday editions. (New York Times wedding announcements were great.) None of those any more.

Ours was never a very good paper - no prestige even on a state level - but it sort of specialized in one thing: the sports of Big State U, located here.

Shutting down the press, putting the paper to bed early, printing it 200 miles away - well, all this was a problem for not-terribly-late-breaking news generally - things that once would have made it into the paper noticeably no longer did, sometimes giving it an alternate history feel.

But it was when the sportswriters were reduced to producing reams of provocative verbiage out of the score at the half, that really made a mockery of the thing.

This might be off base. But I wonder to what extent this reflects the economies of scale / concentration / spread for tech companies. In my experience, they’re the relevant advertisers — I’m pretty sure Apple and FB both basically pushed NYT, which I don’t particularly like, on me as part of their news app development. This probably goes for the major news aggregators too. Of course, if they wanted they could ML up a much more targeted ad, but building flexible software like that might require the marginal cost that’s just past the benefit, since hardcoding “everyone gets the NYT preferential treatment” is just easier (or existed earlier + path dependence) than the targeting alternative. How did people previously discover local news sources? The library? Looking at your neighbors driveway on the way out in the morning or talking to them? Those are media things now.

Comments for this post are closed