MORE FACT SHEETS: STATE OF THE NEWS MEDIA
Newspapers are a critical part of the American news landscape, but they have been hard hit as more and more Americans consume news digitally. The industry’s financial fortunes and subscriber base have been in decline since the early 2000s, even as website audience traffic has grown for many. Meanwhile, alt-weekly papers have also seen their circulation drop. Explore the patterns and longitudinal data about U.S. newspapers below.
The estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2016 was 35 million for weekday and 38 million for Sunday, both of which fell 8% over the previous year. Declines were highest in print circulation: Weekday print circulation decreased 10% and Sunday circulation decreased 9%. (Note that in this fact sheet, and in the chart above, data through 2014 are from Editor & Publisher, which were published on the website of the News Media Alliance (NMA), known at the time as the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). Since then, as the NMA/NAA no longer supplies these data, the Center determined the year-over-year change in total circulation for those daily U.S. newspapers that report to the Alliance for Audited Media and meet certain criteria, as detailed in the note of the chart above. This percentage change was then applied to the total circulation from the prior year. Thus the use of the term “estimated total circulation.”)
Digital circulation is more difficult to gauge. Three of the highest-circulation daily papers in the U.S. – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post – have in recent years not fully reported their digital circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), the group that audits the circulation figures of many of the largest North American newspapers and other publications. Two of these papers report such digital circulation elsewhere: The New York Times in their financial statements and The Wall Street Journal in reports available on the Dow Jones website. (The Washington Post does not fully report digital circulation in any forum.) But because they may not be counted under the same rules used by AAM, these independently produced figures cannot easily be merged with the Alliance data.
Taking these complexities into account, using the AAM data, digital circulation in 2016 was projected to have been roughly steady, with weekday down 1% and Sunday up 1%. If the independently produced figures from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were included in both 2015 and 2016, however, rather than remaining steady, weekday digital circulation would have risen by 11%.
This would also change the overall picture for combined print and digital circulation. Including the digital boost driven by these two large, national brands would still result in an overall drop in circulation year to year but a smaller one: Overall weekday circulation would have fallen by 4% in 2016 rather than 8%.
Gauging digital audience for the entire newspaper industry is difficult since many daily newspapers do not receive enough traffic to their websites to be measured by comScore, the data source relied on here. Thus, the figures offered above reflect the top 50 U.S. daily newspapers based on circulation. In the fourth quarter of 2016, there was an average of roughly 11.7 million monthly unique visitors (across all devices) for these top 50 newspapers. This is a 21% increase from 2015, similar to the 18% rise from 2014-2015. (The list of top 50 papers is based on Sunday circulation but also includes The Wall Street Journal, which does not have any Sunday circulation; for more details, see our methodology.)
Average minutes per visit for the top 50 U.S. daily newspapers, based on circulation, is about two and a half minutes. This decreased just slightly, falling 5% from 2015.
Beyond daily newspapers, many U.S. cities have what are known as “alt-weekly” papers – weekly newspapers, generally distributed for free, which put a heavy focus on arts and culture. Average circulation for the top 20 U.S. alt-weekly papers is just over 61,000, a 6% decline from 2015.
Turning back to the newspaper industry as a whole, the total estimated newspaper industry advertising revenue for 2016 was $18 billion, based on the Center’s analysis of financial statements for publicly traded newspaper companies. This decreased 10% from 2015. Total estimated circulation revenue was $11 billion, which is roughly on par with 2015 (rise of 0.4%).
In the chart above, data through 2012 come from the trade group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), now known as the News Media Alliance (NMA). Data from 2013 onward is based on the Center’s analysis of financial statements from publicly traded U.S. newspaper companies, which now number seven and account for around a quarter of all U.S. daily newspapers, from large national papers to mid-size metro dailies to local papers. For each year through 2012, the year-over-year percentage change in advertising and circulation revenue for these companies is calculated and then applied to the previous year’s revenue totals as reported by the NMA/NAA. In testing this method, changes from 2004-2012 generally matched those as reported by the NMA/NAA; for more details, see our 2016 report.
Digital advertising accounted for 29% of newspaper advertising revenue in 2016, based on this same analysis of publicly traded newspaper companies. This is up from a quarter in 2015 and 17% in 2011.
According to data from the federal government’s American Community Survey (ACS), in 2015 (the last year available) 41,400 people worked as reporters or editors in the newspaper industry, down 4% from 2014 and 37% from 2004.
In previous years, data came from an annual audit of newsroom employment performed by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). As of 2016, ASNE stopped reporting the total number of employees (instead reporting a percentage change in employment). As such, newsroom employment figures are now based on ACS data.
Find out more
This fact sheet was compiled by Michael Barthel, who is a research associate focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.
Read the methodology.
Find more in-depth explorations of U.S. newspapers by following the link below.
Despite subscription surges for largest U.S. newspapers, circulation and revenue fall for industry overall June 1, 2017
For election news, young people turned to some national papers more than their elders Feb. 17, 2017
Trump, Clinton Voters Divided in Their Main Source for Election News Jan. 18, 2017
The Modern News Consumer July 7, 2016