The Newspaper Death Spiral Accelerates

If you haven’t made your peace with the coming wave of newspaper deaths, now might be a good time.

Editor & Publisher has the six-month circulation numbers for the Top 25 newspapers, and they’re just devastating. Half of those who reported had double-digit circulation declines.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s circ plummeted 20 percent. The Star-Ledger dropped 17%. The Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle were down 16 percent. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe were each down 14 percent. The New York Post cratered, with a 21 percent drop.

There is a sliver of good news and a morsel of not-so-bad news. The Wall Street Journal’s circulation was the only one up—by 1 percent—which in this environment has to count as a blockbuster gain. It’s certainly benefiting by the increased appetite for financial news.

But also note that the WSJ is the only newspaper on the list to charge for its website. That means its daily readers who are thinking about saving a couple of hundred bucks a year in this nasty economy, can’t easily replace it with the same product for free on their computers. AJC readers can drop their subscription and read the same thing online for free—so, hey, why not?

Also doing less poorly were The New York Times and Washington Post, which were off 4 percent and 1 percent respectively. The bankrupt Minneapolis Star-Tribune only edged down 1 percent.

These numbers clearly illustrate that there will be a new series of newspaper shutdowns in the coming months. The double-digit circulation declines come at the same time that advertisers are severely curtailing spending on newspaper ads. This will only decrease the confidence of advertisers in newspapers.

And so the endgame is here for the newspaper industry (at least for the metro dailies). Now is the time to pull out all the stops, throw the long bomb, put it up from half court. It probably won’t stave off collapse, but what have the papers got to lose?

The first thing they should do is to try to charge for their websites. It probably won’t result in incremental online revenue, but that’s a pittance to begin with. The real impetus is to sandbag the levee, to shore up print circulation for now to try to survive this depression. It won’t stop the circulation declines, but it might slow them.

Until they do, their readers are going to make the economically rational decision to read the paper online for free—until there’s nothing left to read.

And by the way, the industry doesn’t need to form a cartel to get everybody to charge online. It already has the Associated Press. One possible solution would be to pass an emergency rule mandating that any AP subscriber who puts its content on the Web has to charge a minimum amount, say $5 a month. Watch the papers scramble to implement charges then.

Don’t get me wrong. Charging online likely won’t save the newspaper industry, which is probably past saving. But when you’re going broke fast you’ve got to try to change the game somehow.

Anyone got any better ideas?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.