Q: Back in the 1960s, I delivered 65 newspapers daily and had to walk only about 1 1/2 miles. After retiring two years ago, I delivered to houses in the country and drove about 100 miles to deliver 120 newspapers! Occasionally, I’d drive a city route, formerly done by paperboys, and I’d be lucky to have one house per block! That made me wonder: When was the heyday of newspaper readership? How many dailies were printed in the USA? What was the total circulation? What about today? Should we blame the internet?
P.L., of Glen Carbon
A: For the past few years, I’ve shocked many friends by saying that if I were starting over today, I probably would listen to my revered high school algebra instructor Mrs. Guthrie and go into mathematics.
They immediately protest, saying I’m good at what I do and I love the Answer Man gig too much. To which I point to a mountain of bleak statistics: Since roughly 2005, newspaper circulation, revenue and — most important — employment has fallen off a cliff. And, to me, that doesn’t even include the most disturbing trend, which I’ll get to in a bit.
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So working with numbers seems to offer better job security than writing about them these days when the reading audience seems so fragmented and everyone is battling to have his or her own blog followed. Besides, who’s going to hire a high school sophomore as a newspaper intern these days?
It’s certainly all a far cry from 1909, when, according to all the U.S. Census numbers I could find, the number of daily papers seemed to peak at 2,600 (with a combined daily readership of about 24.2 million). If you count weeklies and others, there were a reported 22,141 publications with 164 million readers even though the population of the United States in 1910 was just above 92 million.
Through the next three decades, business grew even rosier for the nation’s Hearsts and Pulitzers as circulation, compared to total population, reached its highest level. According to the Pew Research Center, daily circulation in 1940 hit 41.1 million, which meant that 31 percent of all people were buying a Daily Planet.
But the increasing popularity of TV and radio brought with it the first big challenge to print domination. Yes, circulation numbers continued to climb, but compared to the growth in population, the overall percentages fell. So when daily circulation hit its all-time high of 63.3 million in 1984, the percentage of people picking up a paper had fallen to 27 percent.
Since then the numbers have continued to slide, drastically so during the past decade. In 2007, Pew found circulation to be still a tad over 50 million. Last year, it was estimated to be 34.6 million, a drop of more than 30 percent. Worse, that means only about 10 percent of Americans were buying a paper. No wonder you were traveling almost a mile per paper delivered.
You find similar decreases in most other categories. In the past 75 years, the number of daily papers has fallen from 1,878 in 1940 to 1,480 in 2000 to 1,331 in 2014, a decrease of another 10 percent since the turn of the century. Revenue, including advertising and circulation, has been cut in half from about $60 billion in 2000 to just under an estimated $30 billion last year, according to Pew. It’s hardly a surprise that papers have tightened their belts by slashing newsroom staffs from 65,440 in 2000 to 41,400 in 2015, a reduction of more than a third in just 15 years.
If you love the physical paper as much as I do, yes, you can “blame” the internet for the demise, but it’s merely a new high-tech tool people have flocked to in a very short time, which is why some numbers are rising. From 2014 to 2016 alone, unique monthly visitors to the nation’s 50 largest papers are up 43 percent from 8.2 million to 11.7 million. Here at the BND, for example, we’re focusing more of our energy on producing videos to meet the growing demand. It’s where the money is: The percentage of revenue coming from newspaper websites has jumped from 17 percent to 29 percent in the past six years.
These are trends that show no signs of slowing or reversing, which leads me to the disturbing statistic I alluded to earlier. According to Pew, those who visited the websites of the top 50 papers spent less than three minutes per visit — and that time has fallen from 2.59 minutes in 2014 to 2.45 minutes in 2016. Compare that to the 17 minutes that the average reader spent with a real paper, according to one study at statistica.com. (Moreover, at least one study found the tactile experience of holding a real book seemed to lead to greater comprehension over reading something on a screen.)
I only hope the public is staying informed from other reliable sources and not from rumoroftheday.com. As for me, I detest all the clicking and scrolling and burning out my eyeballs on video screens. Like a modern dinosaur, I will continue to enjoy paging through my Sunday paper with a cup of hot chocolate at my side until the internet meteorite finishes me off. At which time you’ll find me still chanting that classic line from “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Who is often credited for publishing the first newspaper in what would become the United States? (It lasted one issue.)
Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1975, Illinois issued heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali special license plates with stick-figure boxers instead of numbers and letters.