Report: Print newspapers’ fate looks grim and getting grimmer

WASHINGTON (Courthouse News) — Print newspaper subscriptions and staff sizes continue to tumble, and even their web traffic fell a bit in 2017, the Pew Research Center reported Wednesday.

Pew, which calls itself a “nonpartisan fact tank,” released the fact sheet as part of its continuing reporting on the state of the news media.

U.S. newspaper circulation has dropped by half in the past 30 years. From 1964 through 1998, print newspaper circulation stayed above 60 million, dropping to 58 million in 2000 and to just under 31 million in 2017.

Pew’s research showed that the top 50 newspapers’ web traffic fell slightly from 2016 to 2017, from 11.7 million unique monthly visitors to 11.5 million.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, however, both reported large gains in digital circulation in 2017: 42 percent for the Times and 26 percent for the Journal, added to gains they racked up in the 2016 election year.

Pew said 2017 was the first year since its research began that web traffic did not rise by double digits. Web traffic increased by 18 percent from 2014 to 2015 and by 21 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Digital ads also increased, accounting for 31 percent of newspaper ad revenue in 2017, up from 29 percent in 2016 and 17 percent in 2011.

Newspaper employment statistics were rather grim.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 37,000 employees worked for newsrooms in 2017, only half of the 74,000 newsroom labor force in 2006. That number fell to 55,000 in 2010, and kept falling.

Newsroom salaries have been fairly static since 2012. Median wages for editors in 2017 were about $49,000, while for reporters the figure was about $34,000.

Circulation for alternative weekly newspapers also has dropped. According to Pew, the average circulation for the top 20 alternative weeklies was just over 55,000 in 2017, a 10 percent decline from 2016 and a 37 percent decline since 2012.

Baltimore’s alternative weekly City Paper folded in November 2017, three months after the 62-year-old Village Voice in New York ended its print edition in August 2017 after several years of downsizing and layoffs.

Many other U.S. cities have lost alternative weekly newspapers in the past few years; the Philadelphia City Paper closed in 2015; the San Francisco Bay Guardian ceased publication 2014 and the Boston Phoenix published its last issue in 2013.

Many eulogies for the fallen weeklies cited the internet as a killer of advertising revenue, particularly classified ads, real estate listings, escort services and concert calendars.

Former Washington City Paper editor Jack Shafer cited cultural and technological shifts, writing in a 2013 blog for Reuters: “The smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer.”

Shafer asked: “How does a wedge of newsprint compete with an affordable messaging device that ferries games, social media apps, calendars, news, feature films, scores, coupons and a library’s worth of music and reading material? Ask a young person his opinion and he’ll tell you that nothing says ‘geezer’ like a newspaper, be it daily or alt-weekly.”