Just like paid advertising, circulation is continuing to drop at The Kansas City Star.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, a nonprofit organization consisting of newspaper and periodical publishers, The Star’s average Sunday circulation for the quarter ending last September was 182,780.
Two years earlier, average Sunday circulation was 242,583. That’s a drop of almost 25 percent.
It was even worse for average Monday-Saturday circulation. For the quarter ending September 2014, that figure was 164,053. Over the ensuing two years, it plummeted to 117,734 — a 28 percent drop.
Those numbers include print and digital subscriptions, so it’s clear that The Star’s push to increase digital circulation is not offsetting the ongoing decline of print subscribers.
The Star, of course, is not alone in this cascade. Other major metropolitan dailies have seen double-digit-percentage circulation losses in recent years. For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s average Monday-Saturday circulation fell nearly 33 percent between September 2014 and September 2016. The raw numbers were 169,252 (2014) and 113,990 (2016).
The P-D’s Sunday circulation didn’t tumble as severely as The Star’s: It was down just 16 percent — from 459,072 in 2014 to 385,690 in 2016.
What does this mean for the future of The Star, the Post-Dispatch and other major metropolitan dailies?
Despite appearances, it’s very hard to say, and indications are it is way too early to consign print papers to history.
The prevailing view of many publishers is, “We’ve gotta move people over to digital so we can increase advertising revenue there.” A contrary school of thought, however, holds that print will not easily be unseated as the go-to medium for a majority of news consumers.
An article last year in the Columbia Journalism Review said although the number of people who read print newspapers has dropped 50 percent in the last 20 years, the Pew Research Center reported that print-only is still the most common way of reading news, with more than half of readers in 2015 opting for the print product over digital.
The author of the article, Michael Rosenwald, a reporter at the Washington Post, cited the work of a University of Texas researcher who had found in a survey of news readers 18 to 24 years old that 20 percent had read the print edition of a newspaper during the week they were surveyed, while less than 8 percent read it digitally.
In two other hopeful signs for print products, Rosenwald said the sale of printed books has risen every year since 2013, and surveys have shown that university students prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones.
The vast majority of newspapers’ revenue still comes from their print publications, partly because online ad revenue is significantly diluted by Google and ad auction companies taking their piece of sales.
A British paper, The Guardian, bought ads on its own website to see how much money it netted after the middle men got their share, and it was 30 cents on the dollar!
Rosenwald also pointed to an intrinsic, self-evident advantage that print newspapers have over online news sites:
“In recent years, a flurry of studies has shown that the reading experience online is less immersive and enjoyable than print, which has implications for how we consume and retain information. Studies show that readers tend to skim and jump around online more than they do in print—not just within individual stories, but from page to page and site to site. Print provides a more linear, less distracting way of reading, which in turn increases comprehension.”
That reminded me of something The Star’s new editorial board vice president, Colleen McCain Nelson, said last month at her first public appearance since starting work in December.
Talking about her preference to read news in print rather than online, she said: “There’s a certain order to it; it makes sense.”
While these big circulation dips are alarming, then, to those of us — the many of us — who treasure our print newspapers, it may be a long time before we have to start thinking about the print product getting the Last Rites.
To tweak a famous Sherlock Holmes phrase, “The game is still afoot, Watson!”