Print’s Decline (and the Limits of a Digital Lifeboat)

The Journal Sentinel has experienced astonishing declines in subscribers, truly large numbers that show serious trouble for the paper (and for smaller papers nearby).

Looking at the best available circulation data for public companies – those found in their regulated financial statements – the Milwaukee Business Journal reports Journal Sentinel owner Gannett sets new round of early retirementsJournal Sentinel print circulation slides another 27% (“The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s weekday print edition circulation fell below 100,000 for the first time and is down 27 percent from one year ago” [10.2018 to 10.2017], Journal Sentinel hiking subscription price by 28%, and earlier Journal Sentinel circulation declines 20-plus percent [for calendar year 2017].

Worse, as Ken Doctor writes about Gannett in a different publication, digital editions of many medium or small papers are actually tiny:

Gannett, like a number of other newspaper companies, has more than a third of its print subscribers ages 70 or above in many markets. Most read in print; digital is a second and lesser option. (E-edition readers, who essentially get the print paper in digital form, will also be impacted by this decision.) Those subscribers, at Gannett and elsewhere, have seen their subscription rates hiked again and again, raised to the very limits of econometric modeling.


In Des Moines, the Register now sells 87,000 Sunday and 48,000 daily print copies. Two short years ago, those numbers stood at 122,000 and 66,000. That’s a drop of more than 27 percent in 24 months. Digital subscriptions have increased over that same period — but only from 4,100 to 6,000.


Or look at a smaller market: The Reno Gazette-Journal now sells 22,000 Sunday and 16,000 daily print copies. Two years ago, those numbers were 31,000 and 24,000. Those are declines of 24 percent and 33 percent. Digital subscriptions have climbed from 1,500 to 2,500 over the same period.

Public numbers. These are large print declines, but the only reason one can be sure of them is that Gannett has to report them in a financial filing; failure to do so would risk both government and shareholder actions.

Third-party information on circulation often lags years behind these up-to-date numbers. For example, Wikipedia still lists – as of this post – a daily circulation of 207,000 for the JS, and the Mondo Times lists a figure of 185,000The accurate current number is under 100,000.

Small private companies. With small private-company newspapers, as in our area, only God and their publishers can be sure of their true circulation numbers.

It strains believability when a local, afternoon newspaper contends that its print numbers are up. (Afternoon editions are considered the weakest offering by time of day, and are defunct in most cities.)

Digital. Ken Doctor’s reporting on print versus digital numbers reveals how hard it is for old print publications to make the switch to digital: print numbers are declining steeply, but digital offerings from these print publications are mostly unwanted, with relatively few takers.

For a website like this one, unlike nearby newspapers in almost certain (but unacknowledged) decline and where those papers have dim prospects for digital, the best course is simply a daily commitment to first principles, diligently applied.

4 comments for “Print’s Decline (and the Limits of a Digital Lifeboat)

  1. The Phantom Stranger
    11/21/2018 at 2:45 PM

    Have you seen the Daily Union’s new deal?
    12 Weeks—-for $12!!!!! Whaaaat?????

      11/21/2018 at 3:27 PM

      Wow, not sure what to make of that. I am sure that carrying water for a lying promoter (also under investigation for check kiting) is a circulation-killer.

  2. joe
    11/21/2018 at 4:23 PM

    That the JS has hemorrhaged subscribers is not all that surprising. It has morphed, under Gannett, into just another USA-Today, slipped under the motel door freebee, lifestyle fish-wrapper. There is an almost complete dearth of investigative reporting, and very little reporting on what goes on west of the Pewaukee Iron-Curtain. Lots of Packer newz, though! There was a time when the JS, and the Journal and Sentinel, before the merger, did good work. No mas..

    You have masterfully, and thoroughly, laid waste to the J-ville Gazette before. They have earned it.

    The Madison paper(s), the death-rattling Cap Times and the largely irrelevant State Journal, have sunk so far down that they are breathing thru hollow reeds. The local TV stations have local news stories days before the Lee-Enterprises fortress on Fish Hatchery Road figures out that something might be going on. The Cap Times at least stopped killing trees to put out their rag. The State Journal still seems to think that that changing the aspect ratio of their pages ever few months is going to be the magic bullet that will save the paper. It won’t. Stem cells won’t even cure what ailes them.

    Putting all four of these content-free disasters behind pay-walls is a public service. Al least random web-surfers won’t get contaminated.

      11/22/2018 at 10:33 AM

      All key points (thank you!), and especially telling of the industry’s failures is the idea that changing the size of the paper could possibly be a cure. That’s amazingly nutty and futile: sharp and timely content finds all the space it needs; dull and delayed stories aren’t made better in a changing package.