September 28, 2008

The decline of print journalism?

I hear about this a lot, and I'm sure there are circulation and revenue data that show this (or maybe not, and it's just an urban legend among the chattering class). However, what about just how many articles a newspaper puts out each year? That's surely worth looking at: more articles would seem to suggest better, more productive times. I searched the NYT online for "the" -- the most frequent word in any corpus of English text, guaranteed to show up -- to see how many articles came out in each year. Here is the graph for 1981 to 2007:



There is a downward linear trend, but it is minuscule, accounting for only 4% of the year-to-year variation (other ways of modeling the trend capture a similarly tiny amount of variation). There's a pretty clear cyclical pattern, though, with an apparent period of 16 years (8 years from the peak in 1986 to the trough in 1994, and another 8 years from 1994 to the next peak in 2002). The difference between maximum and minimum values is about 16% of the maximum value, so we're not talking about small changes up and down.

Obviously the internet has nothing to do with the rise and fall of articles that we see. Maybe it tracks some more abstract "economic prosperity" or "booming business" index, but I don't know enough about recent economic history to say. The number of articles declines in the latter half of the '80s and first half of the '90s, when the economy went into the shitter, and recovers during the booming part of the '90s, but it has been declining steadily since 2002 -- have things really been so bad in general starting in 2003? I'll let someone who knows a lot about the economy take that one.

At any rate, the key point here is that you have to look over longer time-scales to say that something is declining -- maybe it's just cyclical, and we're currently in one of the downward-sloping stages. If I get really bored sometime, I'll do a more sophisticated search so that I can get data from before 1981, but even with these data, it's clear that the story of a steady erosion of print journalism is misleading. If my hunch above is correct, the newspapers will hit bottom around 2010 but pick up afterward.

4 comments:

  1. First, there is plenty of data on declining newspaper circulation. The LAT for example, peaked in the late 1980's and has been losing readers ever since. They have lost nearly about half the circulation they had then, and their hard turn to the Left has coincided with ever declining circulation.

    The same holds roughly true for the NYT, the San Francisco papers, and so on. In fact, LA used to have two daily papers, the LAT and Herald Examiner, and now has a dying LAT, where the new owner is struggling to find a buyer. The Chicago Tribune is no different, and of course San Francisco also had two papers and now has only one.

    Declines in circulation can be tracked by the number of towns that supported two papers and now have only one.

    Second, the decline in articles after say 2000 is because of advertising moving to the internet. If you advertise on the internet, you get both cheaper rates, and more targeted ads. You even get better response too.

    Locally, the LAT is just cratering in advertising spending. Businesses are just not spending with them, finding either targeted search ads or ... radio ads more effective.

    Readership is mostly an older reader phenomena, younger people just don't read newspapers.

    Interestingly, there are only two "national" newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal (the "serious" paper) and USA Today (the tabloid one). The NYT tried and failed.

    Yes, quite likely newspapers will significantly decline. They just don't generate revenue, with ever declining readership (overt partisanship does not help -- readers are more likely to be conservative, and younger more liberal potential readers find them "uncool"). Ever declining advertising revenue.

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  2. Re: online presence reducing the number of articles -- the NYT went online in 1995, right as its number of articles went up.

    I don't know when "advertising moved to the internet" -- do you have a cite or link for that? Even if that did coincide with the downturn in 2003, we don't know that different advertising was the cause, since there was a similar downturn starting in 1987. Obviously the internet did not cause that.

    So, we're looking for something general that captures both, something that can cause a back-and-forth cycle.

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  3. Anonymous11:13 AM

    Paper prices? I couldn't find historial information online.

    More articles can just mean shorter articles. Maybe this might reflect editorial and layout decisions--one editor prefers long articles, another prefers a shorter main article with small supporting articles surrounding it, for example.

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  4. Anonymous11:17 AM

    USA Today was first published in 1982, so articles became shorter and shorter to compete, but in 1992 the new publisher changed course until a few years ago, when some other thing happened.

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