Thursday, June 28, 2018

Most U.S. newspapers lost in 2004-15 were weeklies, mostly small ones, but weeklies still dominate industry

"Closures and mergers resulted in a net loss of more than 1,800 newspapers from 2004 to 2015, the overwhelming majority of them weeklies," Ohio University Journalism Professor Bill Reader writes in the Newspaper Research Journal. "But community weeklies remain the most common (70 percent of all newspapers), and community dailies and weeklies account for 62 percent of overall print circulation."

Reader's article shows the true landscape of American newspapers, which have usually been defined by the dominance -- and recently, the tribulations -- of metropolitan dailies, but he points out that fewer than 2 percent of newspapers are metro dailies, "which account for less than 30 percent of overall print circulation."

"Bill presumes, based on the available data, that most of the lost weeklies had small circulations, and that is the trend we have noticed as we followed newspapers and their trade publications during the same period," said Al Cross, professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Reader is an academic partner of the institute, which publishes The Rural Blog. Cross says many if not most of the lost weeklies were in Midwestern towns that are not county seats, and some were merged into county-seat papers.

One indicator of the loss of small weeklies: Reader cites a 2014 study, based on data through 2009, which found that the average circulation of rural weeklies increased from about 3,780 to about 4,700. That study used a stratified sampling of newspaper listings, rather than the comprehensive totals from 2004, which were tabulated by Jock Lauterer of the University of North Carolina.

Reader uses Lauterer's study as a baseline and analyzes data published by Editor & Publisher magazine in 2004, when it was reliably comprehensive, and in 2016, when it was less so; it omits some papers, and 9.6 percent of those listed don't report circulation figures. "Although that data source has some serious limitations, it is arguably the best single source for such industry-wide information, and as such, is far less limited than other existing data sources," Reader concludes.

E&P lists 6,226 community weeklies in 2015, down by 1,639, or 21 percent, from the 7,865 that Lauterer found in his baseline study in 2004. The number of dailies went down 7.8 percent, from 1,456 to 1,342. The great majority of those dailies are small enough to be defined as community newspapers, by whatever yardstick is used. Some papers that were once dailies are now weeklies, defined as publishing three or fewer print editions per week.

"It is clear that the U.S. newspaper industry is overwhelmingly dominated by small newspapers," Reader concludes. "As such, broad studies of 'the newspaper industry' that omit weeklies and/or omit 'small' newspapers are inherently flawed and deeply misleading. . . . It also is misleading to make broad claims about “newspaper print circulation” by omitting weeklies entirely, which account for 55 percent of overall print circulation."

Finally, Reader makes a plea: "Greater efforts should be made to get small newspapers, especially small weeklies, to be more cooperative in self-reporting to the E&P Databook and similar efforts. Doing so would not only help improve industry-wide research efforts but also help raise the profile of the community press among media industry watchers. In particular, with the increasing role of the online newspaper sector, far more newspapers should report page views and unique-visitor rates to their websites."

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