Poor Circulation: bad trends accelerate for print media.

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Like many of my colleagues around the country, I entered the journalism profession during those now-clearly halcyon years of the mid-1990s—the years when “alternative rock” as still meant something as an organizational concept for musicians and their fans; years when the biggest issue of our politics was the president’s personal life; back when the worst we could expect from terrorists was 100 killed in a bombing, not thousands dead from coordinated next-level strikes; years when it never appeared that the US economy could ever do anything but grow.

Those years were also boom years for the media. Newspapers and magazines were thriving as adjuncts of a bull market built around consumerism, and “information technology”, as yet unassociated with the “IT Bubble”, still promised vast new growth in the media itself. Print media welcomes the expansion of its electronic counterpart; it was viewed as an instrument of its own benefit, not as a competitor that would eventually ruin most of traditional media. It was a time when people were actually spending millions to dollars to launch new magazines and newspapers, instead of shutting the existing ones down. Like my colleagues, I’ve spent most of this decade watching the steady destruction of media monoliths that took generations to construct, while inveighing against the poor choices on the management levels that accelerated the whole tragic process.

The process continues apace in 2009. The most recent numbers compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulation and reported most ably by Editor & Publisher,, spanning the Septembers from 2008-2009, are awful. The usual declines, augmented by the larger economic recession, have pushed readerships to lows unseen in living memory. All of the top-25 Sunday papers posted declines averaging 8.42%.

Of the top-25 circulation daily papers, 21 posted declines that average 13.12%, led by the Miami Herald (-23%) and the once-mighty San Francisco Chronicle, which lost a staggering 25.8% of its readership in one year. The New York Times, whose excesses and abuses have figured prominently in the cracking-up of this monolith, only lost 7.28%, but circulation fell below a million—a sad landmark for the business. (The three papers reporting no figures—Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post and Seattle Times—are presumed to be in comparable straits.)

The nation’s largest circulation newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, was the only gainer (+.61%), and is now the only paper with more than two million paid. It had the good fortune of being owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is apparently the only person in the upper levels of American media who knows what he’s doing. Cynics will point out that News Corp. has thrived by pushing populist buttons, generating more heat than light, perhaps. If one sets aside the Journal as an anomaly among the top-ten gainers, none were by papers with a circulation above 175,000.

These larger declines represent a collapse in the information-gathering capacity of whole cities. The daily paper serves a function that has not been fully eclipsed by its competition—not yet, anyway. That is a generational shift in still-early phases; millions of people lack regular access to such technology, and are as such reliant on traditional media for their news. Plus, the daily paper style is a unique animal in the literary world; it is the language of real-time communication, the last bulwark against a language based entirely on acronyms and emoticons and slang. The collapse of the daily paper industry will lead to a fracturing of language that could make everyday talk incomprehensible and impossible to teach within just a few years. If it isn’t already.

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