Hey, You Guys Who Run U.S. Newspaper Chains!

Hey, Tony Ridder! Yes, and you, Doug McCorkindale! Don Newhouse! And the rest of you guys who run large chains of U.S. newspapers!

I know that each day you read The Wall Street Journal because you think that its stock market coverage is the bible of the newspaper industry (even you, Don, whose company isn’t public).

Are you good old boys tired of reading Journal articles like Wednesday’s ‘Newspaper Woes Are Black and White‘? (Sorry, guys, but in case you forgot to read that article in print, you’ll have to register to read it online. Remember to fill in honestly your age, zip code, whether you own your home, and your other personal demographic data.)

Are you tired of reading articles that say newspapers are “slow and stodgy when compared with some of their media rivals”, “getting less and less relevant,” “need to think more creatively,” and that “reading the newspaper can seem ‘more like homework'”? (Hey, those are quotes from your industry’s major customers. You should read what the real critics say!) then maybe, just maybe, isn’t it time that you guys yourselves did something about these problems?

Why you guys? Why now?

Because those problem aren’t new or just temporary aberrations. The funny coincidence is those problems have been going on for at least 20 years — the era when you guys and your compadres have been at the helm of this industry.

For example, take a look at this chart of the U.S. newspapers’ total weekly circulation from 1960 through 2003 (click to enlarge the chart if you can’t see it well). US Newspaper Circulation-thumbnail.gif

It’s from the Newspaper Association of America’s own data. It shows that U.S. weekday newspaper circulation peaked in 1985 and has been declining every since. What a funny coincidence that the decline coincides with your reigns!

Hey, don’t blame the Internet for the decline. Notice how 60% of the U.S. newspaper industry’s circulation losses happened between 1985 and 1995. It ain’t the Internet that’s caused the problems.

And here’s another chart for you guys to eyeball (click to enlarge it). Also based upon NAA data, it shows U.S. weekday newspaper readership, the percentage of U.S. adults who read a daily newspaper.

US Newspaper Readership-thumbnail.gif

Notice how readership has been steadily declining since 1970. I’ll cut you guys some slack here: That readership decline was probably caused by the rise of TV news viewership, which is how most Americans nowadays get their daily news.

Nevertheless, the readership decline has been so obvious since the mid-1970s that the folks in charge of newspaper companies — including you guys who were rising through the managerial ranks there — should have long ago begun doing something about the problem.

Hey, do you take some solace in how that readership chart appears to level off towards its end? Don’t get your hopes up. That’s just when the NAA’s readership data ends. More recent data from MORI research; Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo; and other survey firms show that U.S. daily newspaper readership is again declining and will sink below 50 percent of the adult population during the next 12 to 24 months. In other words, under your reigns, daily newspaper readership will become a minority activity in the United States.

In that chart, you might also notice that the only times when readership has ticked slightly up or temporarily stopped declining have been during economic recessions. Guys, that’s not a good sign! It means that newspaper readership has been steadily declining during periods of economic prosperity. Don’t you want the opposite situation?

So, congratulations, guys! You consider yourself excellent businessmen because you’ve been able to keep your companies’ stock prices and revenues steady or slightly up during all these years while the sales and usage of what you produce have steadily declined during your management. You’re brilliant managers! Lay off more production staff and give yourselves the raises that you think you deserve.

4 Replies to “Hey, You Guys Who Run U.S. Newspaper Chains!”

  1. You’re touching on the most neglected and yet needed-to-be-told story in American media — how a complete and utter failure of leadership is dooming an industry whose survival is important to the kind of society we live in.

    Please help enlighten those of us on the periphery of this story. Are these folks merely as clueless as they appear to be? Or are they nihilistic thugs who are cynically squandering their franchises while propping up “shareholder value” and ensuring themselves a comfortable future?

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