The Decline of Newspapers Hits a Stunning Milestone

A blog about business and economics.
April 28 2014 10:16 AM

The Decline of Newspapers Hits a Stunning Milestone

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Already looks like an anachronism, doesn't it?

Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s a quick reminder that, despite the upbeat story lines we’ve heard about the greater media business during the past year or so, most newspapers are still very much in free fall. At the American Enterprise Institute’s Carpe Diem blog, Mark J. Perry finds that print ad revenues are now the lowest they've been since 1950, when the Newspaper Association of America began tracking industry data. Again, that's 1950, when the U.S. population was less than half its current size and the economy was about one-seventh as big. Revenues are down more than 50 percent in just the past five years alone.

“The dramatic decline in newspaper ad revenues since 2000 has to be one of the most significant and profound Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction in the last decade, maybe in a generation,” Perry writes.

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And yet, his graph might actually understate the horror of last year’s newspaper financials. The problem isn’t simply that growing digital ad dollars can’t replace disappearing print money fast enough; it’s that digital ad revenue is barely growing at all.

And while circulation dollars are up, that growth is likely concentrated at national papers, like the New York Times, which have had success implementing pay walls for their websites. The Gray Lady now has 799,000 online-only subscribers, which helped its first quarter rise year over year. But metro papers haven’t had the same luck convincing their readers to pay. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, dropped its own pay wall after just four months.

So remember: While a handful of startups like Vox.com might be commanding the attention of media reporters these days, old-line newspapers are still bleeding revenue and cutting staff to the bone. It’s not pretty. And it’s not clear there’s much to be done about it.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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