Plenty has been written about why newspapers are losing paid circulation: lack of immediacy, poor content and design, changing readership habits of the young, and on and on.
Many pundits like to put corporate ownership at the top of this list, blaming cost-cutting for much of what ails the industry on the circulation front.
Dirks, Van Essen & Murray put the corporate-ownership hypothesis to the test and found it to be largely false. In a comprehensive study of daily newspaper circulation between 1995 and 2005, we found that newspapers owned by small groups and by public companies fared better than those owned independently and by large privately held groups.
While our overall sample showed an average circulation decline of 9.7% from 1995 to 2005, the small group newspapers lost just 7.0% of their total circulation and those owned by public companies lost 9.2% overall. Independents followed at a loss of 10.7%, and large group owners’ circulation fell by 10.9%. Independent newspapers moved into second place in terms of median percentage decline (see chart).
Separately, we found that the largest dailies in our sample, those with more than 50,000 circulation, showed smaller circulation declines over the period than small and mid-sized papers. The larger newspapers tend to be corporately owned.
In order to study the influence of ownership on circulation, we placed each daily newspaper in one of four ownership categories: 1) Independent – Owning a single daily newspaper. 2) Small Group – Owning more than one daily newspaper but not more than 10, with ownership presiding predominately within one family. 3) Large Group – Owning at least 10 daily newspapers, with private ownership. 4) Public Companies – Shares of the company are publicly traded.
We eliminated newspapers that had not been owned continuously within one of the groups during the study period, and some others due to unusual circumstances such as mergers of separate titles into one.
The gross paid circulation within each category was totaled in 1995 and again in 2005, resulting in the percentage declines outlined above. The median represents the midpoint of the percentage changes for each newspaper in the category.
We then factored market growth into the analysis to determine how local conditions influence circulation.
We adjusted circulation performance based on household growth. To adjust circulation performance based on household growth in each market, we compared the circulation in each year (1995 and 2005) with the total households in the core market of the newspaper (penetration). Circulation in 2005 for each newspaper was adjusted based on the percentage difference between the change in circulation and the change in penetration.
Thus, a newspaper that showed modest circulation growth in a high-growth market would have its circulation adjusted downward. Conversely, a newspaper holding its circulation in a declining market would have its circulation adjusted upward.
Households in the study group rose by 12.9% over the 10-year period, so we adjusted overall circulation losses to 19.4%, when measured against this household growth.
Small groups still came out ahead with an overall adjusted circulation decline of 16.6%. The other three ownership groups showed virtually identical adjusted circulation declines, ranging from 19.5% to 19.8%.
Consistently, the circulation of newspapers in above-average growth markets performed better than those in slower-growth markets. While this may seem self-evident, it also is true that slow growth or retracting markets tend to be older markets where you would expect to find a more loyal newspaper reader.
Regions and Sizes
Next we divided the country into eight geographical regions (see map) which we believe have economic and cultural commonality. The Southwest had the smallest percentage decline but was also the region with the greatest percentage household growth. Consistently, the Midwest had the greatest percentage decline and the slowest household growth.
Finally we looked at the circulation decline relative to the circulation size of the newspaper. The greatest percentage decline came in the smaller markets with dailies of less than 10,000 circulation, where circulation declined 15.1%.
The dailies with more than 10,000 circulation and less than 50,000 experienced a decline of 10.9%, while papers with more than 50,000 circulation managed to keep the decline to 8.5%.
Considering all these factors, as a circulation manager your chances for the best circulation performance are at a daily that is owned by a small group, in a market with better than average household growth, with more than 50,000 circulation, and located in the Southwest. The problem is, there is only one such position that fits the description.
HOW THE STUDY WAS CONDUCTED
Dirks, Van Essen & Murray used information from our database of daily newspapers to study circulation trends from 1995 to 2005.
Circulation information by newspaper for 1995 and 2005 came from SRDS, which uses reported circulation from audits or sworn statements. Household information by market came from Claritas.
The first step in our study was to categorize all daily newspapers into one of four ownership categories.
Then, we eliminated all dailies that had not been consecutively owned within the same ownership category for the past 10 years. For instance, an independent newspaper that was sold to a group in 2000 was excluded because half of the newspaper’s 10-year circulation performance came during independent ownership and half came under group ownership.
However, newspapers that changed hands within the past 10 years that stayed within the same ownership category were kept in the study.
Additionally we removed any daily whose circulation was influenced by unusual factors, such as the launching of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as an offshoot of the Greensburg Tribune-Review.
We did not include two dailies owned by publicly traded companies – USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Both of these national newspapers posted very significant circulation gains over the past 10 years, and if they were included would have reduced the circulation losses of the public companies.
After the eliminations exercise, 1,175 dailies remained in the study, out of a total of 1,452 dailies in the U.S.